The Global Challenge of the Coronavirus

Feb 14, 2020

Though Nathan and Cameron recorded this episode before the coronavirus received its official name (Covid-19), their discussion reflects the dynamic nature of this story—we still have way more questions than answers—and attempts to counter the growing anxiety and animosity with a Christian response.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
Nathan Rittenhouse - @N_Rittenhouse1

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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we talk about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your cohost to Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: Nathan, if you have been following the headlines at all, I think the coronavirus, it's pretty hard to miss. This is a story that has just kept spiraling and it's really captured the public imagination in very interesting ways and I think we have a lot to talk about here, because this is obviously, it is an illness, it is a virus, and because of that, I think people get very nervous from the onset. The spreading happens quickly too, that's another factor, but as is usually the case, I think there seems to be more going on here than meets the eye. And I think the reaction has in some ways been quite an overreaction. So those are kind of some of the elements that have made this coronavirus interesting to me.

Cameron McAllister: But we should probably relay some of the relevant data and facts just in case some of you listening in haven't been following this that closely. Of course, the coronavirus, and correct me if I've got any of these details wrong.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And they'll be different by the time by tomorrow, so go with what we've got for now.

Cameron McAllister: I mean it really is the very definition of a developing story, but began in the Wuhan district of China. It's a place where there's, I think, roughly 11 million people and the last report I had read, Nathan, correct me if I'm wrong here, the theory was still that this probably began in a fish market and it surrounded the trading of illegal wildlife, illegal wild animals. Is that still the running story?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And I don't know, again, it seems like all the information we get at best is sort of third or fourth hand. So I think what we should say though, is that it's not uncommon for different viruses and flu based things to originate in Asia and then work their way through the rest of the world. That's sort of the annual cycle. And that's actually what allows us to produce our vaccines for it is we can kind of look at the rest of the world and say, "Okay, what's significant? What's headed our way?" And then prepare for that. So in some ways, there is a lot of similarities here to the way that things usually work, but yet again, this one has captured the attention more than some of the other ones in the past. So however it got started, it's a thing.

Cameron McAllister: Right, it's a thing. And it’s been putting a lot of people in mind of SARS, of course, severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and I think the deaths from the coronavirus just surpassed SARS on the day that we're recording this.

Cameron McAllister: That's correct.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. That's the difference there.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And so, regardless of how this began, it's now working its way into several other countries as well. We can talk a little bit about those numbers. In other nations, they're smaller obviously. There's a rising death count. The vast majority of these deaths are still occurring in China and many new factors that the doctor who originally was the whistleblower on this, who had had several cases come into the to the hospital and who said this looks to be a different strain. He was initially silenced by the government and told that you're disrupting the public peace, and then it turned out he was right.

Cameron McAllister: Well, he recently just died and some of the circumstances surrounding his death are a little bit cryptic. It was initially misreported. He was only 34 years old. And one of the other factors here in this virus has been that most of the people who are dying, and I believe this is still holding holds true, are people with either a preexisting condition or people who are older, but of course obviously him being 34 years old, that represents a striking reversal. He's also at the time, as his medical history wasn't known. So, but as you can see, there are so many developing elements here. But Nathan, I'm wondering, you're a person who thinks in scientific terms often, when you first heard about this, my first question for you as, as you saw this kind of developing the story where you initially, did this make you nervous or did this scare you at all?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, I think anytime that we see something that we deemed to be bad, a question I ask is, “bad compared to what?” And so right now we're looking at deaths from the coronavirus in China are somewhere around 900 in a couple a while at the same time in the United States, deaths from the seasonal flu around 10,000 with 180,000 hospitalizations. So.

Cameron McAllister: Interesting.

Nathan Rittenhouse: When you look at it that way, we're talking about something that has killed a 10th as many people as the regular seasonal flu in the US, that's not to downplay—it as a serious thing. It is just to put some perspective to the apocalyptic music in the back of the news forecast that goes with it.

Cameron McAllister: But why do you think we have that apocalyptic music? Because what you're saying strikes me as very true, that's been my response to, and yet there's this inescapably creepy kind of atmosphere surrounding any reports on the coronavirus.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So, well there are a couple of things there that are unsettling to us in the sense that we don't know, it's something that is in many regards, out of our control. There's a lot of great medical minds working on this, but the creepy element is I think sort of in the same way that people don't like snakes or spiders, it's hard to look at a spider and tell what it's about to do next. There's an unpredictability to it. You can't read its emotions. You don't know. They can get into places that you wouldn't think they should normally be. And a virus certainly does that. Also, I was thinking about the fact that, even looking at a lot of your modern Marvel, the world's about to be destroyed, this virus is about to get loose and kill everybody. We're now using the global pandemic as a part of the plot of the suspense point of so-and-so has to get the right vial of the antidote before the leader of some country gets something and everybody dies. So even in our fictional view, it creates a good, what's the word I'm looking for? It creates a good story even in our fiction and then we're seeing it played out in real life in kind of each year too.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it does have the elements of a kind of compelling suspense story too. I mean, I was in the airport not long ago, you will be again soon. Nathan, we travel a lot and I was curious about-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, in a few hours.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, and I was thinking how many masks am I going to see? And not as many as I thought by the way, but certainly there are several people on my flight with the masks on. There's even a TSA agent with a mask on as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I just use my beard as a filter.

Cameron McAllister: There you go. I knew that-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Grow your mustache out, that'll-

Cameron McAllister: It's not just stylish, it's also a really great survival skill that you're cultivating there. Love it. But I guess there's been some really sad trends here, frankly as well. I don't know if you've, I'm sure you have Nathan, but if you heard about the cases of where this coronavirus is also leading to discrimination and subtle forms and maybe not so subtle forms of racism as well?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well.

Cameron McAllister: Have you heard about that?

Nathan Rittenhouse: We'll, go ahead and say something about that, but I think that's the direction we want to go here is some of the other things, not specifically connected to the virus, but some of the things that are spinning out of this that I think are interesting, so go ahead with that.

Cameron McAllister: Well, the kind of idea seems to take root in many people's minds that, well, it's not just that there's a virus, but this virus has come out directly by mismanagement or on hygienic or unsanitary conditions and therefore it's not just that this virus came into being here in this specific district, it came into being here because these people are unsanitary, or these people are somehow contaminated in a deeper sense. And so then you start to look at certain people and Asian people and maybe project onto them some kind of a stigma.

Cameron McAllister: I'm speaking in very general terms. And of course we don't spell it out like this. I'm sort of giving very clumsy expression to subtle, insidious mental processes that happen largely below the surface that we scarcely take note of. But just one day, many of us will suddenly find ourselves looking at a person differently because of a news item, maybe holding them at arm's length. They're thinking, well, after all, I mean, the way I usually hear this express Nathan honestly is, "Yeah, well, some virus like this starts in, in mainland China. I mean, are we really surprised? Have you seen what people over there eat?" And then people will chuckle. But let's pause there for a second and notice that that's actually a very destructive thing to say. So a can of worms is now opened. I'll leave it there for right now.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, so and that's part of the direction too, that I was thinking, is that something exciting about this virus, well, that's my question. Is it more of a news story because it started in China than if it started in Sweden?

Cameron McAllister: Sure. Interesting.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I would say yes, because then you have all this stuff and the Chinese government is pushing back saying you're over blowing in the Western media the relevance of this and actually we are working with the World Health Organization and The New York Times is running a thing saying the Chinese government isn't helping and then you have, we're coming right out of the back end of all these protests in Hong Kong and it's just the whole, that's a whole ball of wax here that has to do with our view of China and there's lots of room for critique there, but then also as you're saying just some of these subtle other elements there that make it just a grand story that of course is going to quickly make it into the news.

Cameron McAllister: Spiral. Well, and of course.

Nathan Rittenhouse: You just used the word viral.

Cameron McAllister: I said, I used the word spiral. Look at you.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh, I thought you said it made it go viral.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, but it makes perfect sense that you would hear that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But it is interesting the thing that we use that now as a digital thing and not as a anyway.

Cameron McAllister: Literal?

Nathan Rittenhouse: It's a, yeah. I digressed there.

Cameron McAllister: Many plays on the word viral there, of course. But yeah, I mean the story has of course gone viral. And I guess part of what's interested me about it too, is the way it's captured our imagination. And I think you were saying this earlier, it's a compelling narrative in and of itself. And we have of course, in the world of entertainment, we've got a lot of stories that revolve around the spread of a virus and the frantic attempt to contain it. And of course the other element here you brought in are inherent distrust of the Chinese government, the tensions between Hong Kong, which still is retaining an increasingly tenuous independence or autonomy, relative autonomy, right? And now you have this public health emergency that's happening, but also a lot of people I talked to, and I'm sure this is the case with you, Nathan too, are really distrustful of the numbers and the figures that we're getting, and I have to be honest, I am too.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And that's totally true. And the other thing is oftentimes you see, okay, here are the people that died in a hospital of a known thing, but what percentage of people die not at a hospital or were never diagnosed with that too. So that's a huge thing to keep an eye on. And then we just, that's not to be skeptical, that's to be realistic about historically how these things have happened. And the other thing is that when I was saying the earlier numbers about and the flu deaths, that's not to minimalize this at all. I think really we should be full court press on, as hard as it sounds, quarantines, the checking the temperatures of people landing coming from places.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That's not, not racist, it's not trying to inhibit the economy. It's just saying, "Look, if we do no holds barred on this thing from the get go, we can really stem a lot of suffering in the future. So yeah, I was in thinking about what I said earlier and with what you were saying there, we don't want to minimize the impact there and I think we should be kind of pro, “hey, go for it.” It's easier to pull a weed before it goes to seed, so to speak, to keep that from distributing. Once it starts to multiply, that's a real issue. So nobody listening should think that we're not taking this seriously as a medical situation, but we're just trying to ask some bigger questions around it.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely. And of course, yes to all of the preventative measures that we can take. And I think it's worth pointing out as well, just another helpful piece of perspective is that the World Health Organization, part of the reason that they've declared this a global emergency, has to very much to do with nations that have very limited resources and therefore lack of the proper infrastructure to contain a virus like this. So that's really, that's to put the world on alert, yes, but there've been repeated interviews with people who work for that agency who have pointed out, "Look, this is not us directing you to panic, to immediately go out and buy a mask if you're going to the grocery store, if you live in Cleveland, Ohio. What this is to do is to put the world on alert for this, but especially those nations that really don't have a proper healthcare system, and if this were to basically take root in those nations, that could be catastrophic."

Cameron McAllister: I think it's worth bearing that in mind because so often, if we just follow headlines alone, if we lead with those really dramatic headlines that it can mislead us into a degree of anxiety that is just not necessary here. I think proper concern here and proper preventative measures, some of them quite severe are warranted in certain instances. But I think we need to keep the proper perspective here as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So let me go back then, because there's something we're fumbling with here and we haven't quite nailed down what we're trying to say about it. So we're saying, okay, a lot of these things do start in places that have substandard resources and The World Health Organization is worried about it proliferating in places that wouldn't have fully developed a response systems and medical treatment and care. Basically what we're acknowledging is that not all of the world lives like we do in the United States.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Is that what we're saying? And so there are things to be grateful for about that.

Cameron McAllister: I think that's fair.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I don't think there's anything that allows anybody to fill-

Cameron McAllister: Fear or a sense of.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: But it's some of these things, there are real consequences when there's a flood, usually it's the people who make less money that lose their houses because that's why they own property. There are real structural things to this in addition to what the thing is. So I guess what we're-

Cameron McAllister: And there is some level of responsibility here too. It's okay to point that out as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Right.

Cameron McAllister: I mean that would go hand in hand with substandard approaches to sanitation.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, so I mean, is his responsibility the right word there? Or is it just the way that the world is and things happened?

Cameron McAllister: That's what we're wrestling with I think, isn't it? And we can't have total clarity because we don't have total clarity on precisely what fostered this coronavirus.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Right. Yeah. I don't-

Cameron McAllister: You like the thinking out loud element here with listeners? Because that's literally what we're doing.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So how is—there's something my mom was talking to me the other day. About a tragedy in a family where a little boy drowned in the family pool. I think the mom was inside and the dad was in the garage or something and then the family was being sued or something for negligence. And my mom's comment on it was, “We live in a world in which there are no accidents anymore.”

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's a very interesting phrase.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Somebody has to be responsible for everything. Was it Kobe's helicopter pilots fault? Was it the manufacturer of the helicopter?

Cameron McAllister: The fires in Australia, they're for looking for a culprit for that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And maybe there are some for that. But it's just interesting that we're meaning seeking creatures and that means we're cause seeking creatures also and we want to know what caused this to happen and who's responsible for it. And not being able to know what caused it, who's responsible or why it is, those are the things that lead to fear.

Cameron McAllister: There you go. That's it. I think you hit the nail on the head. That's where the major fear is coming from because we don't have clarity there. And that ambiguity tied to, you've got two unknowns, you've got the, where the heck did this thing come from and two, what is it? It's novel. We've never seen it before. And three, how's it going to play out? What's it going to do? We don't know.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So we don't know about origin, meaning, or destiny.

Cameron McAllister: Right. We don't know origin, meaning, or destiny. And the morality element is a little bit hazy for us, I think as well because we're trying, that would go with trying to find a culprit, trying to find somebody who's responsible.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Alright, this is just getting theoretical here, but would we fear it less if we had one person we could blame?

Cameron McAllister: Oh, I think so. I absolutely think we would fear it less. I think even if that was the only clear answer we had, I think we would fear it less, because then I think we would have our, because we're meaning seeking narrative creatures, we would have our "villain."

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay. Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: And I think that would be the case even if it turned out that the virus was much more serious than we had initially thought. And even if it appeared to be getting out of control and our preventative measures seemed to not be succeeding, I still think there would be less fear because I think a key, crucial part of it would be answered for us. Does that make sense?

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: You can push back on that, but that's what I think.

Nathan Rittenhouse: No, I think we just made some bold statements, but that's interesting just to sit with for a moment and think about. That's what I say.

Cameron McAllister: So this is Thinking Out Loud and we're talking about framing this in terms of Christian hope, so let's try to think along those lines here as well.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Now that we're dun, dun, dun, duh.

Cameron McAllister: Yes, yes. But I mean as Christians.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay, so here, let me put you back to your answer, what you're about to say.

Cameron McAllister: Sure.

Nathan Rittenhouse: So if we could create a villain, then the next thing that we're looking for in the narrative plot line is a savior. Who's the good guy who solves the problem?

Cameron McAllister: Well, okay, so let's complicate it again. The good guy for many people just died under mysterious circumstances. He was 34 years old. He was the doctor who was the whistle blower and initially his death was misreported because, have you seen the mourning for this? We need to look his name up here real quickly because it's escaping me right now. But the degree of national mourning that has happened for this doctor in China has been really remarkable to witness, because initially. Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, and there's a whole interesting category of mourning and protesting simultaneously. We should take that up sometime to as a-

Cameron McAllister: Right. [crosstalk 00:21:12] So there's a political element there as well because initially if the reports are to be trusted, he had already died, but reports were still being disseminated that said that he was in critical condition, but he was gone at that point.

Cameron McAllister: And so when that fact emerged, there was a lots of outrage over the way and the manner in which this was reported. Obviously he was a person who was, he was seemed to be already under suspicion. But there's your, if you want the villain, we don't have the villain yet, but if you want the hero in this human side of the drama, right? You could make a good case that it was that doctor. So you can see how that would add not only insult to injury, but more confusion, more fear to the escalating situation there on the ground.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Was that your response to hope?

Cameron McAllister: Was that, yeah. Was that, yeah. Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That the savior has died, the hero has died. Let's talk about hope.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well yeah, every day I keep thinking about, and you could of course watch footage of this too, but what it's like for people there on the ground who have now been land locked essentially or house bound unless they have to venture out bravely to try to get some food, if there is any. Since what? December I think.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, it's been a while.

Cameron McAllister: I mean the whole thing's at a shutdown. And of course you mentioned the economy and declining stocks. I mean again, this is the nature of a globalized world, right? Where this kind of a thing has huge ramifications, not just for the people on the ground but also for the world economy, political ramifications. But again, so as I'm thinking as a Christian, when I look at all of this, I think one of my first impulses is to pray for these people of course as well and also I think for me personally, Nathan, it's been praying for my own heart in all of this, that I wouldn't be sucked into what I think are deeply heinous mindsets that would denigrate people or look or somehow put them into a different category.

Cameron McAllister: I think because it's just amazing. Something like this happens and you can see how easily discrimination begins to take root in your heart. I mean this, we're talking here about the outbreak of a virus and this is leading us to, I mean they're just, I think often of Paul's really arresting and terrifying phrase in Romans where he talks about in people who are outside of Christ that are not following his rule being inventors of evil. And I just, I mean I think about that only we human beings can take something like this and spin it in such a way that we can actually marginalize a whole people group on the basis. And that's not always what's happening, but so praying against some of those awful thought forums that infiltrate us and I think that's one way I'm trying to respond. I always sound so negative on this podcast, so maybe you need to balance me out here a little bit. What is wrong with me?

Nathan Rittenhouse: So there are two parts there. One is a callous, not forming a negative opinion off of somebody just because of the subtle voices of the news in the back of our mind, but then there's also, I think the thing that as Christians we want to be mindful not to become callous toward suffering. I saw a couple of weeks ago when this was just starting to get going, you see Apple stocks are going to take a hit because a lot of their production comes from this region, and is your form of suffering that you own Apple stock and your stocks going to dip for a few weeks here because of this? I mean, talk about a first world processing of real people dying someplace else. I mean, to me that is another form of, I don't even know what to call that, of not, what is that even? It's just selfishness and self-interested.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well yeah, that's placing the convenience of your life above the actual lives of other people, which is something we continually do in the West. We prioritize convenience over just about everything.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think it's fascinating when you look at the life of Jesus, how many times the gospels go out of their way to say that somebody comes to him with a problem and he reaches out and touches them physically. And so the life of Christ would be the model there is not to flinch and shy back from suffering or contagious, but to extend his hand and touch where nobody else would. And I think on this particular one, living where we do, we're out of physical reach of knowing what to do there, but I think we can think deeply about what our attitudes are. When you hear people are dying, are sick, do you lament for them or do you go into self-preservation mode? And so not to make a utility out of this spiritually, but to say that it can provide, I think an interesting insight into our own heart and our posture towards humanity in general. When does this cause me to grieve or does this cause me to fear? And those aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but it might function in that way for, for many of us as we think through this.

Cameron McAllister: And if you are afraid, what are you afraid of? Are you more fearful for losing something that, some convenience or an Apple stock or are you more fearful for the people on the ground there, has a way of revealing our priorities to us as well. I mean, I think for the time being, for those of you who are listening, most of us here on North American shores who there's really a massive distance between us and this epidemic, I think at the very least, we can be committed to prayer and we can be committed to trying to really do whatever is within our power to help these people who are of course all made in the image of God and who are going through quite a great ordeal overseas.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. And again, it comes back to, I think something we've said multiple times on this podcast, it's easy to look and say, "Oh, over there in China, that's rough." Well, I live in a state that multiple school districts have been closed in the last week due to high flu numbers. And so we can say, well, we can't do anything about a virus on the other side of the ocean, but there are people with the flu that live within a mile of your house, probably statistically speaking on this day if you're listening from the United States. So how we don't get so caught up in the over there that we miss out on the, what I can do right here, other than wash your hands. That's part of the thing that I think we want to resist too, is to get so global in our thinking that we miss out on the local opportunity. And that's not Christ-like either.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. Well, I think we've definitely tried to open up lots of different lines of thinking here. Once again, as we often say, not sure if we've solved anything, but again, that's not the key motivation of this podcast. We do want to talk about some of these current events. We do want to frame them from the standpoint of Christian hope, but also really just explore them and maybe look at some of what's going on beneath the surface. So thank you very much for hanging with us. Obviously we'll continue to learn more the coronavirus, but in the meantime, I think we can be praying for those who are dealing with that on the ground. I love Nathan's advice to actually address the needs all around you. I just had a meeting canceled this morning because one of the people involves their entire family has come down with the flu.

Cameron McAllister: So yep, this is definitely sickness and illness are a major issue here on North American shores as well. What you said, Nathan really put me in mind of CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters. You remember that there's a certain passage in there where Screwtape tells Wormwood, "You always want to make sure that you want to keep your patient focused on very distant problems and keep his eyes away from the needs right in front of him." And so on that note, maybe you do know some people who live here but who are from China or who have relatives there and who are dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety for their family members. Reach out to them, talk to them, pray with them, invite them into your homes.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and even making a little chicken noodle soup is going to be more productive than biting your fingernails.

Cameron McAllister: There you go. And I think that's the right advice to go out on, right? Making a little chicken noodle soup is better than biting your fingernails. That's such a Rittenhouseism. But hey, thank you so much for listening in with us. You have been listening to Thinking Out Loud podcast, where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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