Fear is not real… It is a product of our imagination… Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice. — Will Smith
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is here in Jamaica, land we love. Previous to the announcement of its arrival Jamaicans were divided into two basic groups — those who were apprehensive and fearful of its arrival and those who tek the virus as a joke. Now we seem to have only one, big, panic-stricken, fearful group.
As of March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization reported 134,748 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 4,983 deaths worldwide since October 2019. Thankfully 70,383 infected people have also been reported to have recovered from the virus.
The countries with the largest number of cases in order are: China (80,924), Italy (9,172), South Korea (7,513), Iran (7,161), and France (1,412). As of time of this writing, Jamaica has reported eight cases. The number of infections globally is growing at around 3,000 per day.
Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? Seems worthy of fear doesn’t it?
Face fear or face facts?
Let’s do a comparative analysis with COVID-19 and another respiratory illness like influenza. Now, I realise we may not have seen the end of the spread of this virus as yet, since there currently is no known vaccine. However, at the same time, let’s put the virus in perspective with this other respiratory-type illness. Current coronavirus infection and death numbers, when compared to influenza, are incredibly low.
In the USA alone, this year there have been an estimated 32 million influenza infections, with approximately 18,000 deaths. Influenza kills approximately 300,000 to 650,000 people worldwide annually.
Why the fear, then?
With such a huge disparity in the number of COVID-19 cases versus influenza, why is there such fear associated with the spread of this novel coronavirus? And, why are the health organisations issuing warnings about self-quarantines, cancelling public events, and closing schools?
Dr Otto Yang, infectious disease expert at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) gave a good answer to that question. He said, “I think a big part of it is fear of the unknown. The enemy you don’t know is much scarier than the enemy you know.”
Yes, fear is the real issue, because the virus is new, and not sufficient information is known about it. Hence, the fear of the unknown is sending shock waves across the world.
Fear can make us make unwise, hasty, and costly decisions. Fear is a real and useful emotion, which should always be our slave, but never our master. Fear must only inform us, not guide us. Fear is negative energy that seems to be producing a hysteria that is blinding us and creating general panic and anxiety.
The fear factor is so strongly implanted primarily from the angle of international and local media reporting that most people are not hearing or analysing the facts. We are not acting or responding to what is known about the virus; we are acting out of fear. This is to the detriment of focusing on the facts and real issues surrounding the problem.
Protect the vulnerable
I have not sufficiently heard an appeal by any opinion leader, or advice from any COVID-19 expert to look out for and protect the most vulnerable among us. The facts indicate that a majority of those who have died from COVID-19 are in the age range of 60 to 80 years of age, particularly individuals with already existing chronic or respiratory illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, and similar challenges. If this is so, it begs the question: Where should the focus be?
The answer is simple. Let’s take special care of our elder mothers, fathers, neighbours, and friends, especially those with pre-existing conditions. If you have persons who are in this category, when you go to visit them, wash and sanitise yourself more than you would elsewhere so as to limit their exposure to the virus. Do all you can to build up your own immune system and help them build up theirs, too.
If you suspect that you have come in contact with the virus, halt your visits and call and explain to them why you’re not coming by. Have someone step up on your behalf to continue their care.
Don’t leave our vulnerable without care because of your fear, or because you have legitimately been compromised or you have contracted the virus.
This reminds me of a story about Martin Luther, a famous theologian of centuries ago. As the account goes:
August 1527 the plague struck Wittenberg and numerous people fled in fear of their lives. Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina, who was pregnant at the time, remained in their beloved city in order to treat the infected. Despite the calls for him to flee Wittenberg with his family, Luther’s mind was set on helping the infected. He inevitably came to the conclusion that it was not inherently wrong for one to so value their life that they did not remain, but only so long as the sick had someone of greater faith than they to care for them. He balanced this position with the conviction that this one of greater faith ought not condemn the one of weaker faith who fled.
“Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbour unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, ‘I was sick and you did not visit me…’ ” (Matthew 25: 41–46). According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress, but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”
In other words, Martin Luther maintained that there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aid in this great task. He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, wherein each Christian should offer generous contributions. Yet, if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God.
“Thus it is written in God’s word and command, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ and in Matthew 7, ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’ ”
So strong were his convictions on the matter that he said anyone who was overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of the infected ought to recognise the intrinsic, spiritual warfare taking place — that Satan himself was filling their minds to drive them to anxiety, fear, and, worst of all, “…to forget and lose Christ, our light and life…”
Even the Church, therefore, which is to be a community of faith is being overtaken in the frenzy of fear allowing it to drive their response. Many, rather than admitting the reality of the fear, console themselves by saying I have faith, but I have to be wise, as if to suggest that living by faith is an absence of wisdom. True Christianity is about faith over fear as a choice of action.
We must applaud Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton, and the Government generally, for the management of the process to date. More factual information and targeted public education will be necessary, especially the messaging or actions that bring calm and assurance, instead of fear. In particular, let’s see more messages that challenge our citizens to take responsible action as individual citizens and as organisations working together for the common good.
There is opportunity in every crisis. May we maximise it for the best national good. The threat of the virus and the potential negative impact can become a cause around which to galvanise and unite our people. It reminds us how vulnerable and susceptible we are in our humanity. It prompts us to remember how interdependent we are and that we need each other regardless of our station in life.
Famous civil rights leader Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr made this point much better that I in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.
This COVID-19 virus should be a wake-up call for all to see how much we need a relationship with our God, our creator. For we are not in control of all things, as we often think and pretend. It is a time to humble ourselves, introspect, and recommit to the real purpose of living. Living is about loving, and loving is about serving others. So let us as a people act responsibly, put aside partisanship and other possible divisions, and work together to take our best shot at this novel coronavirus. For there is no more fear here; just a one love. We must be ready to love and serve each other through this crisis.
Copyright © 2020 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.