The World Health Organization has now officially recognized the COVID-19 crisis as a pandemic, with more than 100,000 individuals already known to be affected throughout the world. The numbers are likely to continue to rise quickly, both in the U.S. and globally, as the disease spreads and as testing capabilities are expanded.
As we take appropriate precautions to protect ourselves and our families, my prayer is that the church would earn the reputation for caring sacrificially for those who are most vulnerable in the midst of any crisis. This is possible, “for God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (I Tim. 1:7).
In the midst of any humanitarian crisis – whether a natural disaster, a war or a public health emergency – those who were vulnerable before the crisis tend to suffer most. When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, the number of casualties was exponentially higher than when earthquakes of similar magnitudes have occurred elsewhere, because of recent flooding and inadequate infrastructure.
Though Haitians of all sorts were affected, those living in the most extreme poverty had the worst living conditions to begin with and also the least margin to respond to an unexpected crisis. Middle- and upper-class individuals generally have some savings to rely upon in the midst of a crisis; the poor are the most likely to become homeless, to lack adequate healthcare and to be forcibly displaced.
The same is certainly true now as the world faces a global pandemic. Whereas many diseases tend to put both the very young and the very old at risk, the coronavirus, mercifully, has thus far not caused significant fatalities among babies or children.
The elderly, however, are very much at risk, as are others with underlying health conditions.
For those who are not particularly vulnerable, it might be easy to dismiss this disease as “not my problem,” and even to be annoyed by the significant disruptions this pandemic will cause to our daily lives. As Christ-followers, though, our mandate is to look “not only to [our] own interests” – or just those of our immediate families – “but each of you to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), with a particular concern for the most vulnerable among us, both within the U.S. and globally.
The early church stood out to even the pagan Romans who were actively persecuting them because of their sacrificial care, not just for their own sick, but those suffering around them. The model of Jesus is to value others above ourselves in humility.
We can look at our care for the vulnerable as expanding circles – our immediate family; our neighbors; our church community; our community as a whole, etc. Consider the elderly in your community, those struggling with low incomes and the single mothers who are sick and also caring for young children.
A church in search of the vulnerable and isolated is an irresistible force for good and a worthy witness to the grace of God.
The needed disruptions to daily life in the interest of limiting the spread of the virus are already having economic consequences – which are likely to hit hardest those who are already vulnerable.
Those who may need to work remotely or miss conferences or meetings will be inconvenienced, but the many in the United States for whom being asked not to work means forgoing paychecks will suffer much more acutely. I applaud the administration and Congress for their efforts to create a way for hourly wage earners to have income protection if ill, so they do not come to work and infect others.
As the leader of a ministry that serves refugees and other immigrants, I’m also particularly mindful of the reality that immigrant workers are over-represented in sectors of our economy likely to be hardest hit. Though only about 14 percent of the overall U.S. population, immigrants make up roughly one-quarter of all nursing and home healthcare aides – including those in facilities for elderly individuals who are at the center of the crisis in and around Seattle, Washington. They are 31 percent of all workers in the hotel industry and 22 percent in the restaurant industry, both of which are likely to suffer as people prudently cancel travel plans.
At World Relief, we work in immigrant communities in cities around the U.S. to help authorized workers gain enduring job skills that provide for their families. This is especially critical in times of crisis and in cities such as Seattle, one of the communities hardest hit thus far.
Local churches can help support employment counselors – but can also encourage businesspeople within their congregations to creatively consider how they might open up new employment opportunities at a time when some might find themselves out of work and out of a paycheck.
If the coronavirus continues to spread within parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, in places with significantly less developed healthcare infrastructure than the U.S. or Europe or East Asia, the loss of life could be much more significant. The small Central American country of El Salvador thankfully does not yet have a single documented case of coronavirus – but the country’s president has already begun a nationwide quarantine, including closing schools.
“Our health system is not at Italy’s level; it’s not at South Korea’s level,” acknowledged Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, and the country – already facing high incidences of extreme poverty and violence – simply cannot afford to suffer through a national public health crisis.
Along with many evangelical organizations, we urge Congress to maintain foreign aid, which is in danger of dramatic cuts. And we pray God’s people will continue to support the work of the many Christian organizations at work in the hardest-hit regions of the world.
The ravages of this disease will be felt most deeply in those places, and the suffering may be great. Beyond this, we are learning with great clarity that, when it comes to health, we are all connected; their health challenges become ours and ours become theirs.
At World Relief, we’re proactively addressing this crisis in some of the world’s most vulnerable places by working through networks of local churches in sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and Cambodia to share reliable information on handwashing and sanitation to prevent the spread of coronavirus – and other infectious diseases. In many places, these are new and life-saving habits.
The coronavirus is causing significant disruptions for many Americans. But now is not the time to complain, to hoard or to point fingers at politicians. It is certainly not Christ-like to look down upon those of particular countries or ethnicities.
Instead, now is the moment for the church to rise up, take prudent precautions to protect ourselves, yes; but just as importantly, sacrifice for those who are most vulnerable, both in our own communities and around the world. I hope and pray that those of us in the privileged position of having resources and choices might consider making voluntary, personal sacrifices of time, prayer and financial resources on behalf of the most in need. It is when we most want to look inward the Spirit seems to call us outward – and in this we point to the Grace and Truth of Jesus.
Scott Arbeiter is the president of World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization that works with more than 5,000 local churches and 95,000 volunteers to serve the vulnerable, both in the U.S. and around the world.