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Love in the Time of Corona

It’s been more than two weeks since I’ve voluntarily self-isolated, and almost as long since our county issued shelter-in-place orders. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc around the world, and its long-term impact can be predicted with little precision, if the volatility of the stock market is any indication. With stories coming in from all quarters—the medical community, government officials, the news media, netizens, loved ones—it should be obvious that this is no normal flu.

Confined at home a bit more that I’m used to, I’ve had a lot of time to think and read. Mind you, this post has absolutely nothing to do with Márquez’s work. I just thought it was a clever title for some things I’ve been mulling over.

Anyway, it has been hard to avoid the many articles and posts and comments about the coronavirus floating around. Just as hard is avoiding the opinions of people skeptical about the seriousness of the disease, who question whether it warrants the disruptive health directives from the state. I want to dispel some of their “false intuitions” here.1

Until we learn more about the extent to which it has infected the population, social distancing is a prudent step to take. We’ve already seen enough to know that transmission can be presymptomatic. We’ve already seen how badly it can affect otherwise healthy patients. If there is any situation in which the proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is apropos, this would be it.2

It is easier to put out a flame than a conflagration. It is less costly to fumigate a termite infestation than to wait for the house to fall. It is easier to deal with cancer at its early stages than when it has metastasized; and even then, it is easier to apply chemotherapy earlier rather than later.

If the social distancing directives seem disruptive to the economy now, consider what would happen if the virus had another month to run its course before we decided that the casualty count was finally high enough to justify enforcing social distancing. It would be foolish. At that time, not only would restrictions need to be more severe and strictly enforced, but the virus would have taken more lives, the health care system would be hobbling, and actual fear and panic would no longer be fueled by what people heard and read, but by the reality of death of the people around them.

Whatever direct and indirect damages to the economy we would avert by not implementing social distancing—to jobs, businesses, and even industries; to mental and physical health—the debt would need to be paid eventually, with interest. Death would be multiplied, and so would economic damage. To think that the economy might be spared if society allows the death of hundreds of thousands of people, and disability of hundreds of thousands more, is wishful thinking. The same power that makes compound interest the most powerful force in the universe is the same power behind COVID-19. It is the power of exponential functions.

There were people fussing about per capita numbers just a couple weeks ago. For all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter what the denominator is in the absence of protective measures. It doesn’t matter that the population of the U.S. is five times that of Italy. For a factor of five difference, given a 3-day doubling period of the number of deaths here in the U.S. (as of March 22),3 that delay is one week.

A constant multiplier to an exponential function just translates to a time delay.

That people make comparisons between today’s COVID-19 numbers with total flu numbers boggles my mind. Are people really that shortsighted? Is our math education really that bad? (Don’t answer that.) How can one reasonably compare the geometrically growing case load (which, at the time of their comments, had no indication of slowing down) with a steady-state figure?

We put up with casualties of the seasonal flu because it is a known quantity. We know approximately the steady-state number of those who will be hospitalized, and so have provisioned beds for it. We tailor vaccines for it every year. We have a good idea of its symptoms and their severity, and they are rarely life-threatening by comparison. From what patients and providers say, COVID-19 is absolutely different.

COVID-19 is novel. But we know enough from observing how it is affecting other nations to know the damage it can accomplish. Italy is one of several nations struggling with an overwhelmed health system, and now they are dealing with a mortality rate of over 10. Germany’s extensive testing provides an estimate of a lower bound on the case fatality rate (CFR). As of March 28, it’s around 0.7,4 almost an order of magnitude higher than the CFR of seasonal flu, which is estimated to be below 0.1%.5 Given that the novel coronavirus is also more contagious,6 its prevalence has a higher saturation point, so the the death toll would be further compounded.

Whether the response is an “overreaction” depends on the beholder’s risk tolerance and estimation of the value of a human life. Beyond the technical questions are important ethical ones dealing with immediate knowns (loss of lives) versus future unknowns (loss of jobs), permanent losses (lives) verses recoverable losses (jobs). At what point do we draw the line? Are the measures too costly to trade for the lives of 100,000? 200,000? 500,000? 1,000,000?

The present shelter-in-place measures are the least we can do to buy time to gather more data, especially since the U.S. flubbed its production and distribution of tests. If anything deserves blame, this aspect of the national response does.

Shelter-in-place is the consequence of pride, rooted, I think, in American exceptionalism. It’s the consequence of being dismissive of the urgency of the situation even though we had the benefit of seeing it unfold in China. But when danger is not on your shores, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.

If you want to talk about overreaction now, you can blame the underreaction then. As it stands, social distancing is now a necessary measure to prevent the worst case scenario as we expand hospital capacity and catch up on our data so that we can selectively isolate and treat the affected, for the good of both the economy and of people’s lives.

While the denialism I’ve seen is aggravating, the defiance is infuriating. I’ve encountered people in the comments sections of some article (I know, I know, I couldn’t resist…) who would intentionally flout the recommendations of health experts to shelter in place so that they can revel and boast in their “freedom” as an American. This sentiment unfortunately represents a non-trivial proportion of Americans. Would they go all the way then, putting their money where their mouth is, staying out of hospitals or paying in full the medical costs associated with the consequences of their foolish actions, at the very least?

I appreciate the concerns about governmental overreach, but there are times of emergency when individual liberties must be curtailed for the benefit of the whole. There are provisions for that in any organization. One can debate whether this is the time for such exercise, and whether such exercise is constitutional; it certainly lends gravitas to the situation, without which recommendations from public health experts lose their effectiveness because of, well, people’s tendency to ignore the authorities.

But the way to protest that is not by exercising one’s right to assembly just to prove a point or to indulge in selfish behavior. At this precarious juncture, it is inconsiderate at best, and offensive to those who are risking their lives.

There is no such thing as absolute, unlimited freedom. Every decision is a balance between the public good and individual liberty. Every action, every exercise of a right, has consequences, whether for the actor or for the bystander.

What shall inform us of how to use these freedoms then? Simply put, love for one’s neighbor. One can ask whether one’s actions are for the benefit of others. There is nothing honorable about insisting on assembling and in the process exposing others to risk. When one is not dying for freedom, but causing others to die, that is when a person becomes a tyrant.

Like all good things, rights need to be stewarded. That means using them when appropriate, and refraining from doing so when not. The abuse of freedom will eventually erode it, destroying the very thing one sought to protect.

Anyway, enough about “overreactions” and overreach, about exponentials and liberty. As I read about the effects of the pandemic on the world, I sense my own sin surfacing—the fear, idolatry, selfishness—vices waging war against the moral code that, in better times, I have taken for granted, that press against the convictions about generosity and love that I espouse.

The call of the Christian is not just to avoid bad—it is also to do good. They are two sides of the same Godly standard. In this rare occasion where the right thing to do (“Stay home! Save lives!”) is also comparatively easy (“Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on a couch. You can do this.”), albeit inconvenient and uncomfortable, and sometimes unbearable, I feel the tension between the side of me that so easily becomes outraged at others, and the self-centeredness deep down that deserves the same condemnation.

Conflicting thoughts whirl around in my head.

My family wishes me to avoid risk. I’m essential for the functioning of my business. I have too much to lose. Staying home is ordered by the government. It is socially accepted. It is good to obey, because it will, in aggregate, reduce the burden we place on our health workers. It’s easy enough for me to socially distance myself—I’ve been WFH since 2014.

But none of this makes me innocent.

There is a blood shortage out there. There are fewer volunteers to help feed the homeless. There are hospitals needing masks, elderly needing groceries, isolated people needing human presence. And I can’t help but feel guilty that I get to enjoy the safety and comfort of my apartment with my flatmate, while others take on the risks, because that’s their job, that’s their calling, that’s their family, that’s their conviction.

Where is my conviction?

Jesus taught, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Only, if one chooses to “lose” one’s life in this case, one might infect a bunch of people and they could lose theirs too. One can take every precaution but there is always a risk. How does one reconcile our call to love, faith, and action with the present call to inaction?7 Should every Christian be doing the same thing?

I’m reminded of a song that I became acquainted with in my early years as a Christian. It begins like this:

You keep laying down
Hundred dollar bills
On the counter of your untamed guilt

And you’ll keep paying out
From your empty purse
Until you feel you’ve satisfied your curse8

Indeed, nothing I do in my comfort zone seems enough. Whatever money I donate doesn’t feel enough. I haven’t risked anything I’m not willing to lose. It is damned hard to take real, personal risks, and so very easy to hide our selfishness behind the command to shelter-in-place.

To us who have been instructed, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17), that increased bit of cognitive load from analyzing which is more or less right of two options, the wavering between them, and then after choosing the “more convenient right,” or the “more utilitarian right,” that lingering doubt and guilt from our conscience, all signal to us that our hearts are still self-serving.

I’ve thought about the body of Christ. Each of us have our own roles to play in the kingdom. Right now, the body needs to support those engaged in mercy, the hands and feet that are the front-line health workers, the food pantry workers, the deliverers, the blood donors, the mask deliverers. But not everyone must, nor can, be the hands and feet: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” (1 Corinthians 12:17). Maybe I’m not a hand or foot. I still play a part in the body. I can support those who are hands and feet. There may come a day where the emergency du jour is not a pandemic, and at that time, I’ll need to play my role as the eye or ear. Indeed, as the world heads into the dark aftermath of COVID-19, maybe keeping my team employed will mean something.

But all this still feels like rationalization.

The world was broken even before the pandemic. There were the poor, the homeless, the lonely, the sickly, the exploited, the victims. Did I serve at a food bank before? Did I donate blood? Did I volunteer at shelters? It takes a crisis to uncover how little we actually do during normal times, to reveal the self-centeredness ever-present in our hearts. It is cause for repentance, appropriate during this Lenten season.

With the ongoing crisis, maybe some of us will step out in courage and faith. Others of us will do what we can within our limits of comfort. But no matter how good we try to be, we can always do more. When will it be good enough? When will we have satisfied our curse, paid for our privilege, atoned for our sins, earned our spot before God? We can never. In the eyes of perfect Justice, I am no better than the flouter.

But God—“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God is the “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). God is rich in His mercy, even to the one who flouts His laws.

So as we fight our base self and do what we can in this time of the coronavirus to help others, through staying home and other essential acts of service, let us pray for His mercy, looking to the justification that He has wrought in the atonement and vindication of Christ.

Κύριε, ἐλέησον. Χριστέ, ἐλέησον.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

  1. Thanks to Irene L. for this phrase, and for the feedback.
  2. Thanks to Eric L. for reminding me of this proverb, and for the feedback.
  7. This, of course, leads to other difficult questions. Even beyond the present crisis, when does one join the missionaries, the food bank workers, and when does one support them financially? Is one act considered less than the other? Surely, those on the front-lines are sacrificing more and exhibiting more faith? But if we’re not saved on the basis of our actions, but on the finished work of Christ, is this comparison a relevant or worthwhile one?
  8. “Forgive Yourself” by Downhere.