I got into the field of epidemiology because I see it as the science of the Good Samaritan – of quantifying the most vulnerable among us, those on the margins, through population-level data, and choosing not to walk by.
For months now, I’ve been writing about the pandemic from the perspective of an epidemiologist, a pastor’s wife, and a Christian on my social media blog called Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist. “Friendly” because I like to help and talk, maybe too much at times. “Neighbor” because I knew from the beginning that a virus-like COVID-19 would require us to take the notion of ‘love thy neighbor’ seriously. COVID-19’s nasty way of spreading prior to knowing you’re sick and highly contagious nature makes it a key example for an epidemiologist of how an individual’s behaviors impact the population’s health. In other words, we are all connected and depend on one another with this type of virus.
What I have seen over the past year is that dependency becomes marred with messy threads of Christian nationalism cloaked in “faith over fear,” individualistic definitions of freedoms and allegiances, racism, privilege, and power. Although we know who the most vulnerable are to COVID-19, the consequences of what I wrote in the previous sentence have resulted in many simply walking by.
Now, through extraordinary scientific efforts built over decades of work, we finally have life-saving vaccines that enable us to strive for herd immunity and find our way out of this pandemic. Yes, vaccines are about protecting us as individuals. But, more importantly, as Christians, they help protect others. Equivalent to masks, distancing, and other precautions, vaccines are a tangible way to ‘love thy neighbor’ and show solidarity to those around us – especially the vulnerable. That’s the point of herd immunity—of getting to a point with a disease where the masses protect the margins. In our Good Samaritan story, vaccines are another way for us to choose not to walk by. This is where we run into a challenge (or opportunity, depending on your vantage point).
Because of these vaccines, we in the US are starting to feel as if “normalcy” is within reach. That’s not the case everywhere, though. Higher-income countries have gobbled up 80% of the world’s vaccines with only 0.3% going to low-income countries. Global cases are accelerating more than we have seen over the past year. The pandemic is estimated to double the number at risk of starvation and push an additional 42-66 million children into extreme poverty, with the poorest countries impacted the most.
In the United States, food insecurity has doubled from 10% of all US households to 23%, with children being 1.5 times more likely to bear this burden. Why do I bring up stats and numbers? Because they represent the margins. These are the same countries and communities that do not have equitable vaccine access and are being slammed with COVID-19 case rates. And the margins matter to God.
From the beginning, God gave special instructions to His people to not hoard and to leave enough food for sojourners in the land. If you trace that thread through the rest of the story, you’ll hear about the margins again from the prophets in Isaiah’s proclamation that true fasting and obedience is sharing, clothing, providing, not turning away and as Amos’ harkening in the songs of justice rolling down like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream. Then we finally get to Jesus bursting on the scene in his opening sermon: “For the Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18).
Let’s trace that same freedom sentiment through the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians, “It is for [that] freedom we have been set free” to do what the entire law can be summed up in – “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And again, to the Corinthian church, “At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.”
Why is this talked about so much in scripture? If the foot of the Cross is equal ground for all, why talk so much about the margins, about wealth, and sharing? Perhaps because God knew we would need to be continually reminded that His economy works differently than ours does. I think He also probably knew we would have a hard time doing that with our proclivity toward individualistic thinking. “Did God really say?...” is a strong pull for all of us and can easily excuse a me-first mentality for individuals and systems.
In God’s global economy, however, there’s no scarcity or myopic mentalities. There’s not only an equal distribution of provisions, but there’s also more than enough because we have a God who can make all things abound at all times, who can do more than we can ever ask or imagine, and who can send fed people home with a multiplied basket of bread and fish. He is a God of just distribution and overabundance-enoughness. That’s the system He designed. But, in a world that fails to live by these ideals, our God has a particular concern for the margins.
This brings me back to vaccines and the Good Samaritan story. I think Jesus knew we would need a story that forces us to see humanity through the lens of the Cross where all are equal – all nations, countries, people. That Cross now commissions us as ambassadors and His workmanship to make that holy work a reality.
That lens helps us see where that equity is lacking (kind of like an epidemiologist) in the here-and-not-yet. Then we have a choice. Do we walk by? Do we understand when we feed the hungry, clothe the needy, take care of the sick, get our vaccines and advocate for just distribution for our global neighbors, we not only participate in God’s economy of abundance— we say a resounding ‘yes and amen’ to the God of multiplied baskets, rivers of justice, and herd immunity.
We do not walk by.
God has always been about the margins. I want to be too.