I am by nature a skeptic. I have never been a big fan of doomsday projections in that they virtually always prove to be wrong or at best overstated. We can cherry-pick facts to support just about any scenario. I also believe my skepticism is well-founded. I have seen the media overreact and distort the facts on more occasions than I care to mention. For instance, in her book, “The Smear” Pulitzer Price winner Sheryl Attkinson documents numerous occasions in which the media distorts facts to support a preconceived agenda. She says, “We in the news media have allowed ourselves to become co-opted by political, corporate, and other special interests. We permit them to dictate the story du jour. We let them dominate the opinions we consult and quote. We plaster our news reports with political pundits not offering independent opinions but serving their masters.” In this light, I needed more than speculation to weigh the risks of the coronavirus pandemic.
So it should come as no surprise that my initial response to the tragic predictions of the COVID-19 epidemic was one of skepticism. The COVID-19 pandemic reached the center of the American consciousness: around 8:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, March 11. In a single hour, the president addressed the nation, the National Basketball Association suspended all its games, and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the illness. Within 24 hours, every major sports league had followed suit. Things, as they say, got real. Since then, they’ve only gotten worse. While this itself not proof of the risk it does demonstrate that something was going on. But, I still believe that when it all pans out it will not reach the magnitude that the worst-case scenarios predict. In other words, we should not panic and we need to put it into perspective. Certainly, hard times are in store but we will whether them just as we have in the past.
I grew up in the era after WWII. As kids in school, we had regular drills to prepare for the imminent threat of the nuclear bomb. It was in the shadow of the Cold War that C. S. Lewis was asked to address how humanity should live in an atomic age. While many have forgotten the astonishing fear that gripped the world then- I am old enough to remember it. The terrifying force of nuclear power made the idea of humanity’s extinction seem plausible in a new way. Or so people thought, at least. In his response to such sentiments, Lewis frames the atom bomb as a revelation, an apocalypse, that disclosed how fragile the world has always been. Lewis writes, served to “forcibly remind us of the sort of world we are living in, and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget.” The imminent threat of extinction has woken us “from a petty dream,” he went on, “and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic strikes at the heart of our illusory security in a way that even an atom bomb cannot. Regardless of how imminent it seemed at the time, the possibility of nuclear annihilation remained in the hands of others. Lewis could encourage his audience to allow the bomb to find us “doing sensible and human things” like praying, teaching, reading, and seeing our friends. But resistance to the fear of a pandemic must take an altogether different form, as it is precisely those ordinary acts through which a virus-like COVID-19 spreads.
Death by atom bomb happens with a bang, not a whimper; we would know how it comes to us. But the death-dealing of a virus has a pernicious, insidious quality: We never quite know if we are being infected or not. A virus reshapes the whole texture of how we relate to one another, introducing a layer of fear and suspicion that other cataclysmic evils simply cannot do.
In that way, a pandemic makes us acutely conscious of just how fragile our life together really is. Matters were always this precarious, to be sure. And the communities that will be most affected by the coronavirus—the working classes, the aged, and the sickly—have no delusions about how vulnerable life can be. But for the rest of us, well, COVID-19 is God’s megaphone to a slumbering world.
What if the fear that we have now, though, is itself evidence that we have feared the wrong thing all along? Consider Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 85:11 (86 in most Bibles): “Lead me in your way, Lord, and I will walk in your truth; let my heart be so gladdened as to fear your name.” We shall someday have a gladness that is free from fear, Augustine contends—but the present insecurities of this world mean that our gladness is imperfect and that fear is necessary. “If we are completely secure,” he writes, we “exult in the wrong way.” The fear of the Lord disrupts that security, by reminding us of the passing nature of this temporal world. “Let us not expect security while we are on pilgrimage.”
We do not know how long the quarantine will last but what we do know is that risk we face has always been with us- just not at this scale. What has changed is that we see the stark reality of what can occur if these unlikely worst-case scenarios were to transpire. If we must now acknowledge the need to trust God throughout this time it should be a reminder that we should have been trusting God all along and, we will need to continue to trust Him when the quarantine ends.