The infection and spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global pandemic. This development brings to attention the need to examine the meaning of the term “pandemic,” its historical trajectory in the world, and how Christians have dealt with it – both in the past and present. WHO (2010) defines pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease that has been so widespread that large number of people are affected.
The above definition of the term “pandemic” gives us much insight into the fact that the novel coronavirus is indeed a global pandemic of our day. The mass hysteria, uncertainties, and anxieties caused by this pandemic appear to be a litmus test of the faith and conduct of contemporary Christianity because this is the first time, we are recording a pandemic of this nature in recent times affecting many countries across the world. Although HIV/AIDS is also a pandemic, the way of contracting it is different from that of the COVID-19.
It is, therefore, the focus of this article as a matter of public interest to examine the historical trajectory of how Christians responded to some pandemics or plagues in the past. I will attempt to juxtapose the findings with our understanding of the coronavirus pandemic and the way we should conduct ourselves in combating the disease.
Historical Perspective of Global Pandemics
While this article does not intend to catalogue all the pandemics in history, a few of them have been listed for our reflection. Pandemics have been the cause of death of millions of people across the world so the declaration of COVID-19 by WHO as a pandemic should be an issue of grave concern of every person. For example, the Antonine Plague (165 – 180) killed five million people, Plague of Justinian (541 – 542) killed between 30 and 50 million while the Black Death or Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1351) killed 200 million of the world’s population at the time. The small pox disease in 1520 killed 56 million people while it is indicated that HIV/AIDS disease that began in 1981 has also killed between 25 and 35 million people and still counting.
One of the most dangerous pandemics in the twentieth century was the Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919) which ravaged many cities across the world with a death toll between 40 and 50 million. Some scholars have even stated that the death toll of this Spanish Flu was about 100 million people. Apart from some of these major pandemics, there were others such as The Seventeenth Century Great Plagues (1600) with a death toll of three million, Cholera Three Outbreak (1852 – 1860) which killed one million, Cholera Six Outbreak (1817 – 1923) with a death toll of 800,000, and The Third Plague (1855) which killed 12 million people.
In more recent times, there have been some pandemics such as the Asian Flu (1956 – 1958) with a death toll of two million, and the Hong Kong Flu (1968 – 1970) that killed One million people. The world has also recorded other pandemics such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – SARS (2002 – 2003), Swine Flu (2009 – 2010), and Ebola (2014 – 2016) which killed 770, 200,000, and 11,300 people respectively. These are not an exhaustive list of pandemics and plagues that ravaged lives in the world. One particular situation that ought to be identified with all these pandemics is the long period some of them took to subside. This should make us intensify our effort meant to control the rapid spread of the COVID-19 because it may have the potential of being active for a longer period. As a global pandemic, it is not something that should be underestimated.
It can be seen from the devastations of the above-listed pandemics that in such situations, every person may be a potential victim, irrespective of one’s geographical location. It is a pandemic because we are not able contain it within a particular geographical area but travels across frontiers to unleash terror against people both far and near.
Today some people boast of the advancement of technology and the excessive knowledge of humanity to be able to deal with every situation that confronts us. However, little did they envisage that the ancient phenomenon of global pandemic would resurface to cause havoc to the peace and stability of the world. Till now, there is no vaccine or medication to cure COVID-19. Sadly, world leaders and scientists have all been brought to their knees by the threats of COVID-19. They have not been able to assure the world of a specific timeline that the disease will be completely eradicated for lives and businesses to return to normalcy.
In fact, the effect of COVID-19 has been obvious with no segment of society left unaffected, including religious activities, businesses, education, travel, tourism, and the general social lives of people. The world appears to be experiencing a lockdown.
While some countries are already experiencing serious humanitarian crises, others are totally confused and bracing themselves up for the worse situation to happen in the days ahead. In the midst of this hopelessness and the fear that has stalked society, in which way can the church also provide leadership? If the world is in a lockdown, are the mercies and love of God too locked down? The answer is absolutely No!
What did the Church do in the Past?
It is appropriate to draw inferences from how our past Christian compatriots conducted themselves when they were hit by plagues and pandemics so that we can relate it to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, Christians stood very strong in pandemic situations to the extent that the church continued to grow and we shall take one example for our case study.
In 250 AD, the Roman Empire was ravaged by a plague known as, The Plague of Cyprian (249– 262 AD) which was so dangerous that it could kill about 5,000 people a day in Rome. During the plague, Saint Cyprian (ca. 200 – 258 AD) of Carthage preached to the Christian community to overcome the terror of death caused by the pandemic and demonstrate their Christian virtues and benevolence. The response of Christians in that situation culminated in church growth, despite the fact that the church was also affected by the plague.
Dionysius (ca. 200 – 265 AD), the bishop of Alexandria admonished believers at the time to be very strong with their faith and minister the love and mercy of Christ to people in the face of the crisis, “May we—with our own pandemic—live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world.” He testified about the Christians, thus, “heedless of the dangers, took charge of the sick, attending to their every need” (Wallace 2020).
To put their Christian values and Kingdom Principles into practice, Christians at the time braced themselves up in the face of the plague and attended to the sick and provided care for the destitute. While non-Christians were hopeless and helpless as they run away from their sick relatives and friends, Christians showed the love and mercy of Christ. Their kind gestures and heroic demonstration of faith combined with virtues won the admiration of many people (including those perceived to be their enemies) resulting in their massive conversion to Christianity. In times of crisis the Good News about Christ must be the hope of everyone as the past Christians did.
What can we also do to help people in need in our present situation of the COVID-19 problem? Are we to deny people of our support for fear of being infected with the disease or we will extend the love of Christ to society in these trying times of our faith? Are Christians ready to open their homes for home cell and Bible study programmes as a response to Jesus’ statement that “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst”? (Matt. 18:20 cf. Heb. 10:25).
The closure of businesses and lockdowns of many people at their various homes to stop the spread of the disease may cause difficult situations to the poor and needy in society. Are we ready to share some foodstuffs with them, particularly our neighbours or colleagues who may run out of food and other basic needs of life? Let us all reflect on these challenges to identify the best response to the situation as Christians.
A Pragmatic Approach towards COVID-19
Relative to the situation of COVID-19, various positive responses have been identified in the church – the universal Christian fraternity. Among many of them are the words of encouragement from eminent people of God such as Saint Cyprian and Bishop Dionysius as quoted above. We shall take only one of those numerous admonishing for our case study for lack of adequate space in this article. Apostle Eric Kwabena Nyamekye in his letter to The Church of Pentecost (CoP) writes, “As you may be aware, the [World Health Organization] WHO has declared the coronavirus a pandemic; that is, it has become a global challenge. But we believe that in times like this we need not live in fear and panic or spread anxiety.” Apostle Nyamekye urged Christians to draw strength from Psalm 91:5, 6, “You will not fear the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in darkness, or the pestilence that ravages at noon” (HCSB).
The Chairman of CoP has also asked Christians to cooperate with the (or their) government (s) regarding precautionary measures put in place to combat the spread of the disease. This is very important because as a global pandemic, COVID-19 can spread rapidly to every part of the world, if we refuse to be precautious. Thus, while there is the need for Christians to worship God as well caring for others, they are to be precautious. It is good to reflect on Paul’s admonishing in Ephesians 5:15, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise” (ESV). Vigilance and attitudinal change in terms of hygiene and sanitation is crucial in this regard.
There is also the need to remain cautious by avoiding anything or place that have the potential to infect us with this lethal virus. It, therefore, ought to reiterate that fundamental etiquettes on hygiene and sanitation should be crucial for the pragmatic measures in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In conclusion, Christians are to exercise faith in the Lord for the fact that He will protect and resource us to overcome the threats of COVID-19. In situations like this, prayer, study of God’s Word, personal devotional life, total dependence on God’s grace, and witnessing the gospel to others in need of Christ are vital in the individual Christian’s life. We should not lose faith in the Lord as we take consolation from Paul’s statement in Romans 8:35-39, which indicates that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Surely, we shall overcome the COVID-19 pandemic as it happened in history of Christianity. We must, however, ensure that all directives from experts, authorities, and the leadership of our churches are obeyed. “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Lk. 1:37, KJV).
Author: Vincent Anane Denteh (Rev.)
Email: [email protected]
Cell Phone: 0555874497