Vinoth Ramachandra

The Virus of Fear

Posted on: March 17, 2020

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

11 Responses to "The Virus of Fear"

Thanks so much Vinoth as always.

I was reminded, wisely I think, yesterday, that no this virus wasn´t created by God as an act of judgment, yes we believers still need to be the church in and through this pandemic, and yes, thank the Lord, nothing can separate us from his great love.


Lovely. Thank you for this. I have been struggling to express these sentiments in an articulate manner to some of my friends.

Will share this with some of them who are capable of assessing their own biases.

Thanks again, and hope you are keeping safe and healthy!

On Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 16:13, Vinoth Ramachandra wrote:

> vinoth-ifes posted: “The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 > (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, > on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except > Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that ” >

Thanks Vinoth .

Vinoth, thank you. I have been searching for words to express this same perspective. It’s very important in this time of hardening borders based on ideas os statehood and sovereignty so we can figure out how to live in the real world that is connected, not only by modern globalization, but by Creation, prospects of redemption, by the formative work of human movement and the interactivity.

But there is one thing you said that probably should be revisited. “ in the USA, I can confidently predict that more people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year than from COVID-19.“ Bad as American gun violence is, and bad as NRA perversion of the idea of human rights is, your numbers don’t look like the onesi have seen. We are likely to face more that 20x the number of deaths from COVID-19 just in USA. Perhaps 30x or 40x.

Thank you, Timothy. I stand corrected. Though I do hope the figures you quote will not materialise.

I suspect, too, that the vast majority who die will be sick, elderly persons unlike in the case of gun violence. And, then, of course, there are all the aborted human foetuses…

In this crisis as always the worldview through which we perceive it is important. In the UK, those who were promoting the ‘privatisation of the NHS’ (with its resultant fragmentation) are now ‘protecting the NHS’. The austerity measures have now been reversed to mass expenditure as national debt is over 2 trillion pounds. Stock markets and Pound values plummet. Suddenly those doing poorly paid jobs are of increasing importance – janitors, porters and undertakers. Asymptomatic ‘Self isolators’ and the reluctance to test staff, mean that retirees of vulnerable age will have to return to the NHS. Operating theatres, recovery areas, anaesthetic rooms are being converted to ‘ITU’s to ventilate patients. Treatment thresholds for potentially life threatening conditions are increased with potential loss of life and limb. As the ‘leaderboards’ change hands for ever increasing cases and fatalities, the upbeat political rhetoric is contradicted by scientific opinion. Schools and universities are closed and supermarket shelves are empty. Life as we know it has changed.

Prior to COVID-19, we watched the Earth scorched as the Amazon Rain Forests (the ‘Lungs of the Earth’) were felled by Agri-businesses, the increased forest fires as temperatures rose in Australia, North America and others with limited will to change Climate adverse behaviour as the affluent crisscrossed our skies, and we exploited the fossil fuels. We were indifferent as a human race to our fellow sufferers over a billion poor, the starving dying, the drowning immigrants, the refugees sent packing from Myanmar, Africa and Middle East and sordidly treated in camps including those notorious in the outskirts of Australia. The upper middle classes voted with the poorer for the powerful right wing nationalistic rhetoric.

This is another great ‘Pause’ in our routine. Some of us have experienced these in the past and seen useful transformation from these whilst some never learnt from these opportunities. The LORD owns the Earth and everything in it as Psalm 24.1 informs. If as the LORD’s people we humble ourselves, pray, seek the LORD’s face and turn from our cruel ways, then the LORD will listen from heaven, forgive our sin and heal our nations. (2Chronicles 7.14)

Here is an opportunity to make a difference. When we emerge from COVID-19 (because I believe that the faithful LORD will restore the Earth) we can look at how to organise our societies to facilitate flourishing of all, to turn selfish ‘self-isolation’, panic buying to selfless sacrificial service as our predecessors did during the plagues, sharing our food with the vulnerable, distributing our wealth and living simply that others may simply live, letting the Earth rest by restoring the Sabbath and Jubilee rests (less air flights are an enforced rest for climate adversity), let property be distributed equitably, rights and responsibilities be recognised including those of returning refugees, those experiencing second class citizenship, zero hour contracts and job losses. When we recognise our inter connectedness, the unfortunate patriotic protectionism will end and those who advocate such divisiveness will not prevail. We can either grab this historic opportunity or abrogate our God given responsibility. If none of these lessons are learnt we will return to a worst state, in a Post COVID world. Have not been there before?!

Another well-rounded and thought-provoking article Vinoth. I also am greatly impressed and encouraged by Kumar’s insightful response.

It’s a lot easier to resist a physical enemy than abstract ones such as pernicious ideology like the racism and xenophobia that you cited. Even some foolishly approach the virus as if it’s a tangible foe such as terrorism.

Re counter-measures, it’s a difficult one. As you mentioned, these lockdowns are necessary to stop -or slow down-the proliferation of the disease. If you leave it to discretion as in the UK and parts of the US, another from of reckless selfishness rears its head as we’ve seen amongst some young folk, defiantly gathering in groups. They bank on having relatively low susceptibility to COVID-19, whilst forgetting that as potential carriers they could endanger others or put more strain on already over-worked health personnel should they fall ill.

However, I do agree that the measures themselves, as well as the media reportage, can foment fear that is arguably as bad -or nearly -as the sickness itself. I had this sentiment after hearing how quickly African states and their citizens were thrown into panic when confirmed cases were still only in single digits. It seemed like an overreaction, and still does to an extent. That said, I can now see the wisdom of populous nations such as Nigeria nipping it at the bud, even if going overboard at first. Many developing world countries simply don’t have the healthcare infrastructure to cope. Already Western states such as the UK and Italy are struggling to handle the crisis after years of underfunding.

It would have been great if more countries took the South Korea route of testing. Sadly, as Kumar pointed many Western states have under-funded their public health services; if they have one at all.

So much more could be referenced from this piece, i.e. church responsibility to not gather en masse etc. Thanks for endeavouring to be balanced, as always.

Thank God for thoughtful Christians.

Shalom x

Here, from an American business magazine (not Bernie Sanders!), criticism of the Republican Party’s coronavirus “relief package”:

Relief for the super-rich (just like in 2008)!

And, from the Guardian UK:

Thanks, for your wise thoughts

Thanks, Vinoth

This article has not only challenged my thoughts but also calmed my fears about life. We are humans as one people facing these days of uncertainty but Christians can rest in the fact we are deeply loved and serve others in various ways.

[…] Vinoth Ramachandra in Sri Lanka, thoughts on the virus of fear. Vinoth is an elder statesman, known for his years of ministry in IFES circles. He is always worth […]

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March 2020
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