Fear is viral, too

The news about COVID-19 — the strain of coronavirus that seems to be popping up everywhere around the globe — has dominated the airwaves and flooded our inboxes. Public events are being cancelled. Schools and churches are moving to virtual classes and worship services. Employees are being asked to work from home wherever possible.

All of these measures promote what’s being called “social distancing” — a fancy way of saying, “Don’t let people get close enough to cough on each other.” Starbucks is reducing the seating in its stores, and encouraging people to just grab their double-shot macchiato and go. Theaters are capping their ticket sales to make sure that half the seats remain empty.

We’re encouraged to think of ourselves and others as possible agents of infection, and to stay away. And, unfortunately, where people do come together, they’re fighting over toilet paper.

Toilet paper, for pity’s sake. Really didn’t see that coming. But that’s what fear will do to you.

Don’t get me wrong. The precautions recommended by the CDC and other health agencies are prudent and necessary, even if we ourselves are in good health and not high risk. We are not merely responsible for our own individual well-being, but for the well-being of our communities and the most vulnerable among us. Moreover, for the most part, the recommended behaviors — like washing our hands regularly and thoroughly — are things we should have been doing during flu season anyway.

We just needed a good scare to make us actually do them. And a good scare is what we’re getting.

Yes, we should be careful and responsible. Yes, the potential consequences of not doing so can be grave, given how quickly and invisibly a viral infection can spread.

But here’s some perspective. The CDC estimates that during the 2018-2019 flu season, over 490,000 Americans were hospitalized for influenza; over 34,000 Americans died of flu-related illness. The year before, the numbers were even more staggering: over 808,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths.

Think about that for a moment. Over the last two years in the United States alone, well over a million people were hospitalized for the flu, and nearly 100,000 died.

How many people were social distancing then? Or climbing over each other to get to the last package of TP?

Please, please, please: do not hear me as saying that coronavirus isn’t a real threat. Don’t hear me as saying that we can throw caution to the wind. Rather, hear me as saying this: Be wise, but don’t give in to fear.

That is my concern: fear and anxiety have become more viral than the virus itself.

Social distancing is great as a public health strategy. But it’s lousy for the human community. And it’s lousy for the Christian community, especially when we already struggle against the tide of individualism to form real bonds with each other. The pandemic doesn’t simply create anxiety and isolation out of nothing; it fuels the tendencies toward anxiety and isolation that already exist.

And don’t forget: someone is always ready to profit from our fear. Scammers are hard at work devising new and devious ways to take advantage. Politicians are leveraging the crisis for political gain. None of this is new, of course; people have always used fear to get people’s vote or part them from their money. All that’s changed is the face of that fear, and that face is wearing a filter mask.

What, then? Again, be wise, but don’t give in to fear. We may have to keep our physical distance for a time, or avoid congregating in groups. But we still need each other. We need people who will encourage us. We need people who will check in on us. We need people who will help us keep a godly perspective on an infected and infectious world.

So pray for one another. Reach out by phone or through cyberspace. Use social media, not to spread the virus of fear, but to remind each other that we serve a Lord who regularly told his disciples, “Don’t be afraid.”

Oh, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer.