32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”—John 16:32-33
“Tribulation” is certainly an appropriate description for the previously unimaginable scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected almost everyone around the world, whether through the direct impacts on our health or the health of our loved ones, the sudden restrictions on all our movements, or the fear of the virus arriving in our lives.
The virus does not discriminate. Those of us who initially drew comfort from believing that our general good health would keep us safe should by now have been shocked out of our complacency by the number of deaths being reported of people with no known underlying conditions. COVID-19 does not care whom it affects.
But while the virus does not discriminate, can we say the same about ourselves, and about our responses to it? Jesus’ promise - that we will experience tribulation during our lives - is repeated throughout the Bible, but so are instructions for how we should behave toward others at all times.
We are warned that “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Paul instructs us to “not merely look out for (y)our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), and to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6.2). Indeed, he says in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
Such are the biblical clues to how we should respond to this pandemic. It’s not about us. Instead, we must ask, “How are we currently responding to the burdens of others?”
Collateral Damage from the Pandemic
Though initially manifested as a health crisis, the pandemic has surfaced other societal ills: racial injustice and discrimination, food insecurity, deep economic inequities and recession, human-rights abuses, and governmental corruption.
Alarm over the disease has fuelled discrimination. In Italy, the first European country to be seriously affected by the crisis, early reports of cases led to a panicked search, described by Italian media as a “hunt” for patient zero - the person who brought the virus into the country. Briefly authorities thought they had identified him – a man who had recently traveled to China – but the tests on him turned out negative.
In the US, Australia, India, the UK, and other places where the virus has been described as a “Chinese virus,” there have been many reports of anti-Asian racism on the streets. The scale of abuse on social media sites is even more apparent, with thousands of derogatory comments reported.
Another racist response occurred in France during a television news broadcast, when two medical experts suggested that coronavirus vaccines could be tested on people in Africa, “where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation.”
Statistics from health officials in Chicago have indicated that black Americans are paying a particularly heavy toll for the coronavirus. They account for half of all cases in the city and more than 70 percent of deaths, despite making up only 30 percent of the population. COVID-19 has been described as the "great equalizer," but in Chicago black people already live about nine years less than their white counterparts due to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses. The limited access to health care and affordable healthy foods in black neighbourhoods puts the residents at far greater risk.
Recently, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent warned that structural discrimination in many countries could worsen inequalities in access to healthcare and treatment, which could lead to a rise in disease and death rates among people of African descent. They pointed to the disproportionate numbers of people of African descent who are employed in service industries, live in densely populated communities, or face difficulties accessing food and water, all of which affect their risk of and vulnerability to COVID 19.
UNHCR and others working with refugees and displaced people are issuing stark warnings about the consequences of potential COVID-19 outbreaks in camps around the world. Camps typically contain very limited sanitation services, have severely limited access to medical services, and are host to long queues for food and daily essentials. All this points to a very high risk of the virus’ spreading among the inhabitants of the camps, once they have been exposed. Yet despite these warnings, very little of these fears are being reported in the media. The focus of news services has become increasingly localized, reporting daily statistics and hardships in their own nations, to the exclusion of concerns elsewhere.
It has been suggested that the recent experiences of those in the developed world – such as restrictions on movement, closed borders, reduced access to food and sanitation essentials, concern about livelihoods – might awaken in us a new understanding, a deeper empathy, and a clearer call to action for those who face these challenges every day of their lives. We can only pray for a new empathy in this respect.
From Tribution to Redemptive Solidarity
So then, how are we to respond?
Compared to the suffering of others, are those of us who are in a place of safety and comfort permitted to grieve for the things we are currently missing or fearful about? Of course! Our saviour Christ knew all about tribulation. He was described as a “man of sorrows,” and he got both angry and sad. In John’s portrait of Jesus, even when he knew that he would bring Lazarus back from the dead, he wept at the news of his death of his friend. Even though he knew that the miracle he was about to perform would bring great joy, he was affected by the grief of those around him (see John 11:1-44).
But even during his greatest trauma, Christ was still thinking about the needs of others. The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus saw his mother and his disciple John at the foot of his cross, he told them that they were now to live as mother and son and take care of each other (John 19).
While we allow ourselves to grieve for the changes in our own lives, how are we looking to the needs of others? Are we speaking out to focus attention on the risks to the most vulnerable and to condemn increased incidents of racial abuse in connection with the virus?
Here are ten suggestions for actions we each can take:
- Do your part – follow the protocols and advice of authorities for safely working and interacting with family, friends, colleagues, and the public—for their sake as much as for your own.
- Speak out for justice – from the pulpit and through all corners of the life of your congregation – about the discrimination which is being levelled at others during this time and how it is in complete contradiction to Jesus’s teachings of love and inclusion.
- Speak out for truth – particularly in response to racist comments about the virus. Respond to such comments by using the correct terminology about the virus, and avoid generalizing about the responsibility of certain nations or nationalities for the spread of the pandemic.
- Use your social media platforms wisely. Do not spread unconfirmed reports, which induce unnecessary fear, but instead seek to draw attention to situations of injustice, discrimination, and the concerns of the more vulnerable and hidden members of our communities and beyond.
- Check on your neighbours regularly, particularly if they are elderly or from a minority group, who might be fearful to leave the house for essential items. Offer to collect food and other items for them.
- Shop locally – As far as possible, shop at small businesses which are more likely to be struggling during this period, and particularly if they are owned by someone from a minority group. Ask whether you can buy a gift card from them for a product you would collect and use later in the year, so that they receive the money at this most difficult time.
- Be a humanitarian – Volunteering to help local agencies is a concrete sign of love. But international humanitarian organizations also need your support more than ever. Consider donating to those working in camps, facing crowded, ill-equipped, and unsanitary conditions and preparing for widespread outbreaks of COVID-19.
- Hold leaders to account – The words and actions of elected officials during this crisis should be remembered both now and during future elections. Although we will not know for months or even years about the success rates of the various national responses, those leaders who have acted in an arrogant, self-serving or dismissive manner, or who have sought to hide the truth about the virus in their own country, should be held to account.
- Continue to pray, even when you no longer have the words or you feel like you are repeating the same prayer day after day. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is listening and interceding for us with God.
- Spread only the contagion of love, make it as infectious as possible!
Following the example of Jesus, and responding in solidarity to this pandemic, we will be able to affirm confidently, not just for ourselves but for all, the eventual triumph of love over tribulation. “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).
- What kinds of tensions, conflicts, or disparities have become more apparent in your community, context, or congregation since the pandemic started? What do empathetic responses look like in those situations?
- What does it mean to pray for and with others and to deepen and broaden our empathy toward those, near and far, who are suffering now?
- How might you or your congregation become more fully engaged in directly participating in international efforts to alleviate suffering caused by the pandemic?
Jesus, our brother and saviour, you have known troubles, trials, and tribulations, and you have embraced the suffering of this world on your cross. Touch us, wake us to the needs of those around us and, through them, heal and transform our lives and our hurting world. Amen.
Jennifer Philpot-Nissen serves the World Council of Churches as programme executive for Human Rights and Disarmament in the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. Her 25 years of human rights advocacy also includes over a decade working for World Vision International and eight years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and much of her work has centred on children.