by Richard Doebler
Little wonder that a story about a scary virus goes viral.
Sensationalism sells advertising. So it’s easy to understand why media outlets are motivated to tell the most compelling, even shocking stories. Routine stories cannot compete for attention — not in the crowded arena filled with alarming reports and frightening, disturbing events.
Most reporters (tabloid writers excluded) pride themselves on being “objective, neutral and unbiased,” but it’s no surprise they are inclined to tell stories that grab attention — stories that sell. And if a story “goes viral,” so much the better.
We might have expected as much. News hounds thrive on the sensational. Just as “rubbernecking” drivers steal a glance at a freeway crash, we can’t help being curious. We want to see what “crashed.”
It turns out a lot has crashed — not because of the virus itself, but because of society’s reaction to it. One observer speculates there will be more bankruptcies in America caused by COVID-19 than deaths. And the resulting frenzy feeds a cycle: reports lead to reactions, leading to more reports. News of cancelled classes, tournaments, churches, and sporting events send a message: “Be afraid! Be very afraid!”
Public service announcements to stock up on groceries and sanitizer send a message: “This is bad! This is very bad!” The stock market tanks and we get the message: “We tried to tell you. This is the new normal in America.” Every report (people under quarantine; test kits unavailable; overwhelmed hospitals; government inertia) generates more alarm. The growing angst leads to more of the same.
This public fascination with tragic, shocking stories helps news outlets sell their broadcasts and publications. It’s almost addictive: terrible news creates a desire for more — a “snowball” effect. Incessant news of the sensational increases alarm and anxiety, so readers and listeners want more.
But not everyone. Some people, quite understandably, choose to break the cycle. They opt out of news entirely; they refuse to ingest the negativity. Others find refuge in a caricature of news, relying on late-night talk show monologues as their primary source of information. What they typically get is specious or, at the least, misleading.
In an old English folk tale, an acorn falls on the head of Chicken Little who jumps to a conclusion and then announces to all who will listen that “The sky is falling.” He easily convinces his barnyard friends to believe the news, and they all suffer the consequences of being misled.
Amid all the hysteria, it would be good to pause for a moment and reflect about the consequences: What is true? What is exaggerated? What is a balanced perspective? How should we then live?
As Christians, we can process the flow of information with a biblical view in place. We can do this for any alarming news, including pandemics. How can we do this? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Maintain perspective. Even when global catastrophes or evil tyrants come, events of the day should not determine your well-being. God is still on the throne. Evil comes and evil goes; things improve, things get worse. “The sun comes up, the sun goes down…. The wind blows south, the wind blows north…” (Ecc. 1:5-6, CEV). To everything there is a season (Eccl. 3:1). In times of trouble, remember that better times will come.
Exercise discernment. Learn to separate fact from fiction. Don’t believe everything you hear. Examine everything carefully and only hold on to the good things (1 Thess. 5:21). We need more than a reality check; we need a spirituality check! We need to practice seeing the difference between good and bad (Heb. 5:14). It’s the truth that will “set you free” (John 8:32).
Focus on the good. As you maintain perspective and exercise discernment, you’ll be able to focus more on things that can build you up. Since God is good (all the time), your thoughts and prayers can center on God and his purposes. You’ll be able to take captive (lock up) the thoughts attempting to remove God from his throne (2 Cor. 10:5). You can learn to think straight — guarding your heart (Prov. 4:23) — or as one version puts it: “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts” (GNT).
Give your worries to God. Reduce your anxieties through prayer, petitions, and giving thanks to God for all he has done (Phil. 4:6). The result? The incomprehensible peace of God will guard your heart (so you’ll feel better) and your mind (so you’ll think more clearly) (Phil. 4:7).
Reshape your mental habits. As God takes your worries and your thought life is redeemed, you’ll be more able to overrule fears, negative thinking, and the lies that would normally confuse and disturb. Get rid of negative and destructive thinking even more by filling your head with noble, pure, and praise-worthy ideas (Phil. 4:8).
Be transformed. Work constantly to be thoroughly transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23). It’s not enough merely to think the right thing. What’s important is that you do the right thing. Follow through from healthy thoughts to positive action! Allow your renewed mind to reshape your behavior, indeed, your entire life!
With these steps in mind, how might we process the news about COVID-19? Is there anything we can say that will diminish fear and anxiety?
Start by maintaining perspective. Let’s track down the fuller story. What if we asked ourselves how the severity of the Coronavirus compares to other health threats and diseases. Do we (or did we) react to other threats the same way? Did we panic over measles, for instance? Did we shut down the NBA because of whooping cough?
Consider influenza, for instance. In the five months from October, 2019, through February, 2020, over 34 million Americans contracted the flu (despite a massive 174.5 million immunizations [see here]). More than 350,000 have been hospitalized, and over 20,000 have died (see the CDC website). That’s more than an average 130 deaths per day with about 0.56% of those infected dying. See note below.
Early statistics on the Coronavirus indicate it is more virulent than Influenza A and B. Worldwide numbers (as of March 12, 2020) report 134,488 sickened by the disease. Of those, 4,970 have died [see here]. That means about 3.7% of those who get it have died from it — more than the flu, but still not nearly as dangerous or fatal as other diseases.
Every day around the world nearly four times as many people die from measles as are dying from COVID-19, according to the Information Is Beautiful website. Differences are even more dramatic when comparing deaths due to tuberculosis: 48 times more people die from TB (3,014 each day compared to 62 from Coronavirus). Keep in mind also that 99% of those under 60 who catch Coronavirus will recover. (Of course, numbers and comparisons may change as more data becomes available.)
We should take normal precautions in dealing with Coronavirus, of course. Like we would for any contagious disease. Practicing good hygiene, washing our hands, using disinfectant, covering our cough or sneeze — all of that. The saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness,” though not in Scripture, is still a good maxim to follow.
For the believer, however, our trust is ultimately in God. We focus on his goodness and give him our worries. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Rom 14:8). Paul said, “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.” (Phil. 1:21, NLT).
First-century Roman citizens were impressed by the early believers’ actions when plagues and pestilence ravaged Rome. While senators and aristocrats fled the city with their families to avoid sickness and death, believers waded into the chaos, caring for the sick and dying. Their fearless response to human suffering caused many to rethink their own world views. [See Christian History magazine, Issue #101.] Mother Teresa made a similar impression on the world with her compassionate care for the poor and dying in the gutters of Calcutta.
The question remains: what can the church today do to help in the current epidemic of fear?
As Christians we can live each day for Christ, looking for ways to be light to the world (Matt. 5:14). We can dare to stay in our place, steady and confident, helping others in need, fulfilling our call, and trusting God with the outcome.
As citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we need not fear sickness or death. Our goal and destiny is to one day live eternally in God’s presence where tears are wiped away and death is no more.
Richard Doebler is FCA Media editor. He was formerly an FCA pastor in several churches and an associate editor of Leadership published by Christianity Today.
Note: Because many cases of influenza go unreported, the CDC reports an estimated range of impact. Numbers cited reflect the low end. The upper end numbers are: 49 million cases; 23 million medical visits; 620,000 hospitalizations; 52,000 deaths.