What are We Learning from This Global Pandemic?
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. To date, as of April 22, 2020, there are over 2.6 million COVID-19 cases with more than 182,000 deaths. Every country in the world is impacted.
In the United States alone, we are nearing 840,000 confirmed cases with over 46,000 deaths. In a matter of weeks, our world, our nation, and our communities have dramatically changed. Even the simple act of going out for a cup of coffee has been transformed into a mask-covering, glove-wearing kind of activity.
How do we make sense of it all? Unfortunately, the confusing din of the media has not helped.
For me, I’m writing to bring some order to what I’m hearing. And perhaps in bringing some order, we can find a way forward.
Understanding Some of the Economic Issues
Certainly, 2020 was expected to be a year of turbulence anyhow. Nationally, an election season promised plenty of political rhetoric. But globally, 2020 was likely already going to be a year of global economic slowdown, according to George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures. He noted that countries dependent on exports, like China, would face a decline in demand for manufactured goods as a part of normal business cycles. On the other hand, countries dependent on raw material exports, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, would be hurt by the fall in demand from manufacturing countries like China.
An undercurrent (although certainly not a small one) to these issues is oil. As Friedman notes, from before World War I and certainly into the 1970s, people who controlled oil had an automatic lever on those who did not. But from the 1980s on, as oil became more plentiful, oil producers became more dependent on consumers. Put differently, oil producers became more dependent upon high global demand to make things work.
Despite the best global forecasts, no one could have predicted the coronavirus at this time and season.
The anticipated global economic slowdown has only been accelerated by the virus. As a result, Friedman notes, the effect on a country like export-dependent China is staggering. The ripple effect is obvious. With less demand for manufactured goods, there’s less demand for oil. Countries dependent on oil exports are hurting as well. For instance, 30% of Russian GDP is energy dependent as are 60% of their exports; energy accounts for 50% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP and 70% of its exports. By comparison, only 13% of the United States GDP is dependent on exports.
As a side note, the current gamesmanship going on between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil production is not doing anyone any favors. Whether either country can afford this political and economic jousting remains to be seen, but regardless, the damage to the global economy is manifold.
In the United States, the economic impact of the coronavirus cannot be understated. In late March Congress has enacted a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, the CARES Act, and this week the Senate has already passed another nearly $500 billion relief bill, with the House expected to follow suit. More than 90% of America remains under a shelter-in-place order. The impact on businesses around the country are staggering. In the United States, there are now 22 million people unemployed.
Understanding Some of the Social and Faith Issues
There are many unanswered questions. As Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak , Martin Reeves and Paul Swartz write in “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus,” Harvard Business Review, there are several key elements of the outbreak we don’t have answers for yet:
- The properties of the virus itself and how it may change over time;
- Why so many patients have been asymptomatic and still carriers;
- True rates of infection and death rates;
- The role of uneven and uncertain policy responses;
- The reactions of individual, companies and families themselves.
As I’ve heard it said a few different times, we are driving without headlights.
In the meantime, policy makers are being forced to react to a current crisis of need. It is hard to say if we’ll look back upon this time with regret for the longer-term implications of our policy decisions or if we’ll call it heroism.
But certainly, the implications from this time go well beyond governmental and economic. There is deep social and religious change afoot. In my own world, I’ve had many say to me that they are looking forward to “things going back to the way they were.” I’m quick to remind them that there is no going back.
Some commentators are already predicting these kinds of potential changes:
- Have we experienced a loss of innocence where people will be more content to be alone than in the company of others?
- Will the virus finally give America a “common enemy” and bring together our country?
- Will the virus lead to an end of individualism and move us to action together as a community?
- The barriers to work and services online will come tumbling down.
- The growth of telemedicine.
- Big government gets bigger still.
There will be various and sundry predictions like the ones above, but they still point us to the same conclusion: we really don’t know.
Uncertainty and faith
And that’s where some of the good news is found. The uncertainty, the unknown, the shakiness of the world causes people to look to something they can count on. When people live in doubt, they look for hope in God.
Dale Partridge, writing for Faithwire in “How the Coronavirus Might Change the Local Church, Forever,” says it this way: “This season may not look like the most effective path toward a Christian awakening in our world, but history confirms that the most fertile soil for church revival is found in the beds of suffering and uncertainty.”
Is it any wonder that sales of the Bible have gone up dramatically during this time?
Partridge, however, notes that the shelter-in-place rules have led to church shopping of an altogether different kind. Because of the internet, people can literally go church shopping globally. Worse still, the weeks of watching church services online may lead to some people simply adopting virtual church “attendance” over participating with a local body of believers.
A Way Forward
As I consider the dizzying and intense pace of the past few weeks, I find myself a bit in awe. I remember distinctly getting a text message from a friend who said simply, “Our world changed overnight.”
And it has, and it will continue to change. I suspect we’d gotten far too comfortable in the relative luxury of our prosperous world. Yet God in His grace is giving us this grand disruption.
It seems to me that part of the lesson of disruption is comprehensive. We really do need one another. That message rings true on so many levels.
We really are a global economy. One nation can’t take advantage of another nation without the ripples being felt across the waters. There are no longer global winners and losers, and we ought to learn to play in the sandbox nicely. We can win together, or we can lose together, but it doesn’t happen independently.
And as a people, while we might pretend that we can be self-sufficient as we shop virtual churches, the truth is that we need each other. There’s never been a time when that’s been more real. With so many competing and conflicting voices, we can best discern truth (or error) as we process that in community.
It is striking to me that as Jesus was departing this world, he recognized that he was leaving his little band of followers in a hostile world that would not readily accept his message. He prayed this prayer: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one….so that the world may know that you sent me…” John 17.22,23
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash
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Published April 22, 2020
Topics: Culture Commentary