Preparing for the coronavirus outbreak

March 10th, 2020

What is a coronavirus?

The outbreak of a new coronavirus began in China in December and has now spread around the world. While often being referred to as “the coronavirus” in media reports, coronaviruses are actually a large family of viruses that can affect animals or humans and they are named for their crown-like appearance when viewed under a microscope. In humans, several coronaviruses cause respiratory infections such as the common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as described by the World Health Organization (WHO). The most recently discovered coronavirus — the one making headlines worldwide — is called COVID-19. 

Since this is a newly discovered disease, there’s still much to be learned about it. However, we do know that COVID-19 can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets contained in sneezes, coughs or exhalations from an infected person. People can catch COVID-19 when they touch objects or hard surfaces where these droplets have landed and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from an infected person who has coughed, sneezed or exhaled. Although it’s thought that people are most contagious when they have symptoms, it’s possible that infected people who have mild cases or those who are asymptomatic can also spread the disease. As a result, the virus seems to spread relatively easily from person to person.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough and shortness of breath. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 show symptoms that range from mild to severe to fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that symptoms may occur as early as two days after exposure or as late as 14 days after someone’s initial exposure. WHO says that most people recover from the virus with more serious cases requiring special treatment. However, others become seriously ill and have difficulty breathing. Older individuals and people with serious underlying chronic health problems are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill.  

Spread and protective measures

According to a situation report from the WHO on the morning of March 8, more than 100,000 cases have been confirmed globally, and over 100 countries have reported laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, says that WHO has “increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level.” He continues, 

What we see at the moment are linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries, but most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases. We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities. As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate, and care for patients and trace contacts.

The CDC says that the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid exposure and recommends the following preventative actions:

  • Avoid close contact with infected people. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. 
  • Stay home if you are sick. 
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe. 
  • Use a face mask only if you have symptoms to avoid contaminating others who aren’t sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. 
  • If soap and water aren't readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. 

Congregational preparedness

Since the CDC is urging the public to prepare for a possible COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important for churches to engage in emergency preparedness, including planning and resource assessment. 

Congregations can encourage people to get information from a reliable source such as the CDC or the WHO. The CDC has been urging people to “share facts, not fear” in order to help stop the spread of rumors. For example, Asian Americans have felt increased public scrutiny and in some areas their businesses have suffered because of fear related to COVID-19. Congregations can help stop that fear by communicating the fact that neither race nor ethnicity increases the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.

Bishop Grant J. Hagiya of the California-Pacific Conference issued this statement in February: 

We have all been consumed by the rapid spread of the Coronavirus and its growing implications for our daily lives. We cannot downplay the importance of being prepared and not reacting with panic or fear.

As a spiritual body, we need to remember that fear turns people toward sin. Anytime we scapegoat a certain people (e.g., Asians where the virus seemed to originate), we are guilty of practicing such sin. Our response to victims should not be ostracizing and shunning them, but it should be to have compassion and care for them.

Pastor Brad Bartelmay of Holland First UMC in Michigan says that his church is already planning: “We are calmly preparing for any possibility . . . . We are strategizing on how to ‘do church’ in a world where worship attendance is depressed, and where small groups and Sunday School may be discontinued. We will be exploring more pastoral caregiving and wellness tracking of vulnerable populations.” 


Our interconnected world

The coronavirus is causing many people to question our globally connected economy and a number of op-eds and financial columns have been giving expression to these public fears. Steven Erlanger, writing in the New York Times, notes that the spread of the coronavirus “may be a decisive moment in the fervid debates over how much the world integrates or separates.” Before the outbreak reached Europe, many around the world had begun to express concern about security, trade practices, industrial supply chains, and share their doubts about doing business with China. Erlanger writes, “The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls, tinged with racism and xenophobia, for tougher controls over migrants, tourists, and even multinational corporations.”

Generally, the term globalization leads us to think of trade, global markets and ease of travel and communication. The coronavirus may well expand our notions of the way people worldwide are both interconnected and interdependent. It may also force us to think more about how nations can help each other maintain the health of all people and the relative fragility of all life on this planet.

One of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is that God created the earth. The earth belongs to God, not to humankind, but people are also made in the image of God. All of these affirmations speak of our interconnectedness. In this time of uncertainty and fear, how will we act in ways that recognize our interdependency and work together for the health of the world and its people? 

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