Between fear and reality: a new virus on a global scale

Por: Pbro. David Gómez Valdés

26 febrero 2020, Miércoles de Cenizas, Cremona (Italia)
26 febrero 2020, Miércoles de Cenizas, Cremona (Italia)

The philosopher Mary Baker Eddy sentenced in 1875: “The press unknowingly spreads many sorrows and diseases among the human family. […] A new name for an ailment affects people as much as a Parisian name for fashionable attire. Everyone rushes to get it.” [1] Saving distances with this thought, after the Covid-19, better known as “coronavirus”, emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was discovered on December 8, began with the unheard-of spread of the virus the explosive spread of a global phobia. Certainly, it is important to recognize the seriousness of the problem and not to minimize it, but it is necessary to reiterate the call to calm, because since the other epidemics are destined to be overcome.

In human history, there have been reports of epidemics that, due to their rapid spread, became pandemics and led to the deaths of many people. Just think of the black or bubonic plague that hit much of medieval Europe and forced entire cities to be quarantined. It originated in Asia, but as early as 1348 it had reached the shores of the Mediterranean and given the novelty of the disease, the lack of hygiene and medicine at that time, caused the deaths of about 20 million Europeans in six years, a huge figure if we consider it to represent a quarter of the world’s population.

In the time of the Crusades, typhus played a key role in these wars. Even in the 19th century, another pandemic touched Eurasia and Africa: cholera. At the beginning of the twentieth century, precisely in 1918, the first cases of humanity’s largest pandemic appeared to this day, we talked about the “Spanish influenza”, which was first observed in Kansas (USA), but given the extreme virulence and an unusual mutation of the virus rapidly spread to various points of the orb causing the deaths of around 60 million people in just six months. Among its victims were children, young people, adults and some animal species. In those months, simple people such as Saint Francis Marto and Saint Jacinta Marto died, two of the three visionaries of Our Lady of Fatima; but also personalities such as Prince Erik of Sweden and Norway, Rodrigues Alves, then president of Brazil, the famous German sociologist Max Weber and us President Woodrow Wilson.

In more recent times HIV-AIDS emerged in the 1980s, the 2003 avaria influenza that led in two years to a pandemic and then swine flu (A H1N1), which in 2009 expanded as coronavirus is doing today. Ebola, malaria and cholera outbreaks arise in Africa at various time of the year. As we know the Aedes aegypti mosquito in equatorial and tropical environments it transmits diseases such as Zika, chikungunya and dengue (particularly hemorrhagic dengue), which Cubans know well.

Beyond these very brief historical considerations that help us to have a picture of the current drama, it is important to point out that after a period of fierce virulence that inevitably causes the death of some people, there are moments of uncertainty that precede scientific exploration in search of a cure.

The feeling of helplessness of modern man accustomed to rapid responses, to keep under control any situation that arises (just think of the obvious scientific-technical development and the great advances of medicine on a global scale), explains the climate of fear. As Pope Francis states: “It is true that although these processes are always slow, sometimes fear paralyzes us too much.” [2]

Undoubtedly, the innate desire to preserve our existence in the face of danger is understandable, hence concern for a virus of unknown causes that has caused the death (until the time of this writing) of 2 810 people. [3] But there are signs of hopes such as the medicine-free healing of a 17-day-old Chinese girl born and the cure of the first Italian case, a 29-year-old who after a week returned home safely. Many today heal at home as if they face a simple cold, but it is no reason to neglect hygiene measures.

When evil is far from our reach it moves us, but as “it is not our problem”, we do not let ourselves be touched in depth and we keep thinking about ourselves. The world economy is reeling, especially in China. Some care more about the negative impact on sport and tourism than on the human suffering and being attacked by something that is out of their control for now. We think of the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (24 July – 9 August) or the current Champions League that will end this May 30 at Istanbul Olympic Stadium, full of football fans.

For example, in Italy, information on the virus was closely followed, but when 822 cases were reported in February and the deaths of 21 Italians, become the third country with the highest number of infected (after China and South Korea), collective hysteria began in the north of the country: schools, universities, factories and churches were closed. Measures have been taken in Rome (centre) and the South to protect the population, especially the elderly and asthmatics who appear to be an easy target of the epidemic. Animals do not appear to be infected with this “pulmonite” as it was in the case of Spanish influenza. Prevention measures are already known to all of us: wash your hands frequently with soap and water, don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth, cover your mouth when coughing, and make salted water umbrellas to remove possible germs. Those with a cold, with nasal discharge and sputum, are not symptoms of coronavirus, which is easily identified with dry cough. The virus appears to die at a temperature of 27oC, but it can survive twelve hours on certain surfaces (metallic or woven) and 10 minutes in our hands, which invites us to intensify the hygiene of workplaces, means of transport, our homes, our cell phones and computers. Similarly, it is urgent and prudent to seek medical assistance immediately if you have a sore throat, high fever and difficulties, avoiding contact with many people.

The Vatican has not developed any regulations, but it was recommended at masses in Italy, San Marino and The Vatican to take communion only under the species of bread and in hand; that the presiding priest and any minister who distributes sacred communion wash his hands minutes before the rite in question, give the greeting of peace by hugging (or touching our shoulders) those closest to us without having to greet everyone present and at that time avoiding kisses or handshakes.

Another key factor in avoiding general psychosis is the prudence of Christian preachers (priests, pastors, speakers) during celebrations or other public events so as not to fall into the temptation of retributive justice that classifies this virus as “a punishment of God,” “a sign of the end of time,” “the apocalypse has begun,” “a warning from Heaven,” or other phrases. Let us remember that Jesus Christ assured us, “No one knows neither the day nor the hour” (cf. Mk 13:32). As St John XXIII said at the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council: let us not be “prophets of venture”.

In the novel The Plague (1947) by the French philosopher Albert Camus, set in an Algerian city under French rule in the 40s of the last century, bubonic plague expands. One of the characters, Father Paneloux, a medium-sized Jesuit, of strong character, from the pulpit of the cathedral, to which he was invited to preach to the faithful, affirms in a strong, passionate voice, that he dragged: […] “My brethren, ye have fallen into disgrace; my brothers, you have deserved it […] Meditate on this and get down on your knees. […] The righteous will fear nothing, but the bad guys have reason to tremble.” [4] As we know at the end of the novel, Father Paneloux realizes that he is infected and begins to preach about God’s love, which all forgives, and days later he was found dead “half-fallen out of bed, his eyes expressed nothing”. He enrolled in his file: “Doubtful Case.” [5]

It is unhealthy to associate the disease with a kind of divine punitiveness or moral correction. This deforms the image of God, who is not a heartless referee looking for any excuse to expel us from the match. Suffice it to remember how, after the Haiti earthquake (2010) that killed more than 230,000 people, some evangelical pastors in Latin America sentenced that it was a divine punishment for the practice of voodoo, forgetting the presence of Catholic and Protestant Christians in that sister nation. Pope Benedict XVI, commenting Luke 13,1-9 clarified that evil has no origin in God:


“Jesus is challenged about some luctuous facts: the murder, inside the temple, of some Galileans by order of Pontius Pilate and the fall of a tower on some passers-by. Faced with the easy conclusion of considering evil as an effect of divine punishment, Jesus presents the true image of God, who is good and cannot want evil, and guarding the fact that unsealings are the immediate effect of the personal faults of those who suffer them, affirms: “Do you think those Galileans were more sinners than all other Galileans , why have you suffered these things? No, I assure you; and if you do not convert, you will all perish in the same way” (Lk 13:2-3). Jesus invites us to make a different reading of these facts, placing them in the perspective of conversion: the unseatfulness, the luctuous events, should not arouse in us curiosity or the search for alleged culprits, but must represent an occasion to reflect, to overcome the illusion of being able to live without God, and to strengthen, with the Lord’s help, the commitment to change life. In the face of sin, God is full of mercy and continues to exhort sinners to avoid evil, grow in their love, and specifically help others in need, so that they may live the joy of grace and not go to the encounter of eternal death. But the possibility of conversion requires us to learn to read the facts of life in the perspective of faith, that is, encouraged by God’s holy fear. In the presence of suffering and mourning, true wisdom is to be challenged by the precariousness of existence and to read human history with the eyes of God, who, always and only wanting the good of his children, by an inscrutable plan of his love, sometimes allows them to be tested by pain to bring them to a greater good.” [6]

Coronavirus, cholera, HIV-AIDS, cancer, leprosy, typhus and other diseases are not a “punishment of God” for the sinner. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in several U.S. cities, some nations hinted that it was divine revenge on the proud state. The then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger clarified: “God does not do us evil; this would go against the essence of God, who does not want evil. But the inner consequence of sin is that I will one day feel the consequences inherent in evil itself. It is not God who imposes some evil on us to heal us, but God leaves me, so to speak, to the logic of my action and, left to this logic of my action, I am already punished for the essence of my evil. In my evil is also involved the punishment itself; it does not come from the heart, it comes from the logic of my action, and so I can understand that I have been in opposition to my truth, and being in opposition to my truth I am in opposition to God, and I must see that opposition with God is always self-destructive, not because God destroys me, but because sin destroys me.” [7]

Correct information plays a key role. If “the truth is the first victim in the war,” as Esquilo said; In these times of fear, truth is the first victim of the coronavirus: the effects are exaggerated or minimized, the poor are blamed, especially migrants, who live on the street. In Germany, for example, xenophobia and racism are reborn with slogans such as “cutting off any Chinese”; more “moderate” groups that invite you not to approach Chinese restaurants and businesses, and link any Chinese to the disease.

This virus that threatens to become a global pandemic must unite us and not separate ourselves: let us avoid hoarding products that serve everyone, let us not approve of the rebirth of national hatreds and political oppositions that take advantage of the time to campaign. For example, Italy’s rich north blames the poor south and the political left for not closing the Borders of the Mediterranean on time to those who arrive every week in makeshift boats fleeing war, hunger and cruel regimes in Africa and the Middle East. Interestingly, the infection and spread of the Chinese virus in Italy, came from the industrialized north, residence of viPs and right and far right parties.

Asymptomatic virus is not discovered until several days after infection; it is more conducive in cold climates and does not mean that the infection inevitably leads to the patient’s death (in Italy there are 46 cured). Like any disease it depends on the body of each human being and their immune system. The elderly are more likely than the rest of the people.

Cubans must not let their guard down and think it is a Euro-Asian problem, far from our reach. Already on the island the first cases begin to emerge, four to this day.

The 21st-century Christian is a global man “capable of coming into contact with the daily needs of people who seek a dignified life, who want to enjoy the beautiful things of existence, find peace and harmony, solve family crises, cure their illnesses, watch their children grow happy.” [8] As Christians we pray for the people who are suffering today from the virus for which in a year there is a drug that will hold it permanently. Let us pray that God will enlighten the scientific community that has been working tirelessly since January to find that cure. In the face of an epidemic that spreads with particular virulence, let us avoid falling into excessive chatring and the spiral of alarmism that paralyzes. Let’s not give in to the fear it divides. It is more regrettable how in some today the ‘virus’ of narcissistic individualism is more strongly verified, reflecting the culture of “my first thing”, which is crumbling our social coexistence. We are not alone: this is the message of hope that as Christians we are called to spread these days. With an open heart full of faith we pray, “Lord, your love is eternal, do not abandon the work of your hands!” (cf. Psalm 138,8).

[1] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, The Christian Science Board of Directors, Boston 1991, p. 196-197.

[2] Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Dear Amazonia, (February 2, 2020), n. 69.

[3] These figures correspond to 29 February 2020, at the time of publication of this article the reader may notice the change of numbers of victims, sick and cured that due to the current evolution of the virus are variable and never accurate data.

[4] Albert Camus, The Plague, p. 47-48.

[5] Albert Camus, The Plague, p. 116.

[6] Benedict XVI, Angelus Domini, (March 7, 2010).

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Antonella Palermo’s interview with Cardinal Ratzinger following the 9/11 attacks on Vatican Radio (12 September 2001).

[8] Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Dear Amazonia, (February 2, 2020), n. 80.

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