Tag Archives: COVID-19

An “Adventist Muslim” Response to COVID-19

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work for 13 years at Loma Linda University, a grand experiment in the possibility that many religions can work together in a common mission to “continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ.” I have been often been amazed at the spiritual commitment of the non-Christian faculty and staff at LLU. Among them is Eba Hathout, Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of the Pediatric Diabetes Center at our Children’s Hospital. A self-professed “Adventist Muslim,” she speaks below with prophetic power to our situation. This is a transcript of her Ramadan speech at an interfaith event on May 14, 2020:

“It was a mere two months ago, that we were all wrapped up around ourselves. We as individuals, political parties, different-color races, religions and countries. On the global scene, our world was in a state of toxic inflammation, with fires of anger and hatred and war everywhere. Then in just one moment, on March 11, everything stopped, and the world stood still. I had been busy preparing for the annual Hassan Hathout Legacy interfaith event: For the Love of Tomorrow, which was scheduled to take place at the Huntington Gardens on March 15th. My last meeting at the venue was on March 10th when all details were final. The next morning, news about the virus invading America was starting to erupt, and I made the difficult decision to postpone our event. Later that evening, and with unprecedented speed, the whole of America shut down. My son and his classmates at Harvard Law School were told not come back to campus after Spring Break. Harvard was closing. Other colleges shut down. Schools followed. Our nation, and much of the world, was on lock down.

“As a physician, the priority at our university hospital was how to take care of patients while keeping everyone safe. We had heard the horror stories of Italy, and then of New York. The work environment changed to a war zone, with command center meetings twice a day including weekends, and numerous other virtual meetings throughout the day. At Loma Linda, every meeting starts with a prayer. A two-year transition to Telemedicine had to be done in two weeks. Quick decisions were made about which doctors needed to stay and work from home for their own safety. Visionary leaders planned and were ready for the worst in terms of casualties. However, the worst did not happen in the form of massive numbers of sick and dead people, rather it was in the many co-workers and patients’ families who had to lose income or livelihood. At work and throughout the nation, financial losses were cruel and grave.

“We take comfort in God’s insurmountable power and bountiful grace as we read in the bible: But They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.
We read echoes in the Quran: It is God who started creation that can start it again. He shall grant you endless bounties from heaven, and from earth.
Today more than ever, we are being tested for our capability to adapt, and our ability to recover. Self-renewal, in all of God’s living creatures, is what favors the survival of one species over another. It is that inner force to bounce back and move on. This too is a skill in which God can provide and guide.

“One month after ‘D-Day’ of the pandemic, I started going out for solitary walks around our Pasadena neighborhood. I couldn’t help but notice that our world had changed again. The sky was bluer, the trees were greener. I could smell more roses as the earth began to breathe. There were far more birds singing and children walking with their parents in the streets. Strangers were smiling to each other in the markets, and the pavements were full of friendly words and gestures. I didn’t know quite how to describe it other than to say that, somehow, despite the threat of a deadly virus in the air, the world felt less toxic, and more human.

“Towards the end of April, the lunar month of Ramadan started, and it was then that I realized what an unprecedented fasting month that would be. This time, it was not just Muslims who were staying home reflecting and reading scripture, Americans of all faiths were doing the same. It was as if all of America was living with us, our first common Ramadan. Our mouths are not just closed but masked with veils of different colors, as we each try to protect our neighbors and our friends. The only time we unveil is when we talk to God in prayer. Our eyes yearn for each other. We got accustomed to smiling with our eyes rather than our lips. This inconvenience is far more tolerable for those who wear the mask, not out of fear, but out of love.

“In the past, when we called for cleaner air, we sometimes forgot that toxicity was also spiritual and emotional and social. It took one tiny virus, killing thousands around the world, for us to wake up to a gentler and kinder America. And it is important as we mask and glove each day to remember why we do this. Personally, it is easier to accept that one will die whenever God destined them to, and just move on. One other factor is added to this equation, it is that negligence can carry harm to someone we love. I know many who have such orientation. Taking precautions is neither forgetful of faith nor of destiny, it is not born out of restlessness, rather it is taking a bold step out of the house of fear, and into the house of love.
In his poem, The Great Realization, Tom Roberts was asked by a little boy: why did it take a virus to bring people back together, he answered: sometimes you got to get sick before you start feeling better. That is why Hindsight is 2020.

“So here we are together, living through and making History as the generation of 2020. Therein lies the perfect milieu for fasting, where the inflammation of hatred is quietened, and many toxins that invade our ears and gut and spirit are put to rest, body and soul align to make happy brains and happy hearts. That is healing at its best. There is a depth and a height which we attain when we fast that is enormously uplifting. Whenever we reach one mountaintop, we begin to climb another. Everything shrinks to its proper dimension, and a magical power prevails. That I would argue, is the power of distilled, detoxified, and purified Love.

“As a child, I remember sitting next to my father watching the first Apollo moon landing, I recall my father’s words which echo in my conscience to this day: Isn’t it a pity, that Man who was able to reach the moon, is still not able to reach the heart of his fellow man. Now that we face this common and largely unpredictable virus threat, perhaps we can start conducting our lives with a more vivid image of an ancient and eternal reality, that of our own impermanence, and our ultimate divine destination.

“While we cannot cure the world, we can certainly do our part, where we are, with what we have..like the old story of the man who walked on the beach rescuing one starfish at a time by tossing it from the sand back to the ocean where it can live..When someone told him: “There are hundreds of beaches and thousands of starfish, you won’t make a difference..” he replied as he tossed another starfish back into the ocean: “I make a difference to this one.”
This pandemic has left us with many to resuscitate, and much to rebuild. So wherever we are, and however we can, let us take a path of love, and rescue whatever starfish come our way, remembering that if we cannot help everyone, sometimes it’s enough to make a difference to one.

“On these special last nights of Ramadan, I hope that our fast will add to the collective prayers of Americans of all faiths, and that divine healing can touch both body and soul of our nation. May God make us instruments of His mercy as we rebuild a common new path, guided by divine wisdom, and shining with God’s light.

“I pray that God will ease our deep longing for each other, and for people and places where we cannot be at present. Today in particular, I remember my own friends and say to them: In love we met, in love we part, and in love, I hope, we meet again.”

The Bible and Social Distancing

The great dilemma facing the world’s leaders right now is a new disease (COVID-19) with the following features: 1) we have no preventive (vaccine) and no cure, 2) it appears to be highly contagious, 3) it can be spread by people who don’t even know they have it (no symptoms), and 4) it is substantially deadly. We don’t yet know how deadly. Based on today’s statistics, lethality ranges from one percent (Germany) to over ten percent (Italy). Given that so many who test positive are completely without symptoms, it is more likely that the actual range is something like .5% to 5%. Since the deadliness of the common flu is about .1%, these are serious numbers which merit a serious response. To date, the primary response of the world’s leaders (in addition to emergency-level health care for the sick and an all-out drive to find a vaccine and a cure) is social distancing; a substantial portion of the world’s people largely confined to their homes. But this remedy threatens to completely collapse the world’s economy, which would likely have consequences more lethal than the virus itself (suicide, starvation, and increased susceptibility to disease among other consequences).

In light of this situation, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what the Bible has to say about social distancing as a response to contagious disease. There are three main texts: Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:10-15. I will take them in the order they appear in the Bible. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Lev 13:45-46, ESV. Leprosy is today known to be a mildly contagious disease with extremely debilitating consequences. Back then, there was no treatment and no cure. When a person was identified as having the disease, they were to live alone and signal their condition by dress and voice whenever they were in public. In the previous verses of Leviticus 13 (verses 1-44) are elaborate procedures to diagnose the disease along with 7-14-day quarantines during the period when it was unclear if the symptoms were actually leprous or not.

Numbers 5:1-4, ESV: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ 4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.” This text is similar to the previous, without the elaborate procedures for diagnosis and adding a couple of other triggers for isolation (bodily discharge and contact with the dead). The remedy for leprosy was to distance those infected with the disease outside the camp of Israel.
In Numbers 12:10-15, Moses’ sister Miriam is found to have leprosy. Moses prays to God for her healing and Miriam is healed. Nevertheless, in line with the procedures outlined in Leviticus 13:1-44, Miriam is quarantined outside the camp for seven days to verify that the healing had, in fact, taken place. So social distancing is clearly a biblical remedy for contagious disease and those who follow the Bible should have no qualms about observing it under the current situation, even to the extent of avoiding gatherings for worship.

There are, however, two significant differences between the incidents recounted in the Bible and the situation today. First, in the Bible, it was the infected who were isolated socially, not the healthy. By identifying and isolating the diseased the contagion could be controlled. Second, the Israelites were dealing with a disease that had observable, physical symptoms. As we have already noted, with COVID-19 a person can be infected, and infectious, and yet have no symptoms. To some degree that makes social distancing in this case a fool’s errand. In the context of crowded cities, the disease can still be passed on within households and in the context of the search for food and other essential supplies. People who feel completely fine and have no symptoms can still unknowingly spread the disease to the people around them.

What guidance can we take from these texts for the current situation? The “biblical” solution to COVID-19 would seem to involve two things: 1) Find a vaccine and a cure, so the wider population need no longer fear infection from social interaction. But since those remedies are thought to be 12-18 months away at best, what can be done more immediately to stem the tide of the disease without collapsing the world economy? 2) Ramp up testing for COVID-19 to separate the asymptomatic from the healthy. With a contagious disease, diagnosis is critical (Lev 13:1-44). If no one knows who has the disease, social distancing in the biblical sense will not be possible.

There is still the hope that COVID-19 will somehow burn itself out like many similar flus have done in the past. But in the meantime, the “biblical” approach would seem to be, 1) Determine who in fact has the virus and who does not, and 2) Isolate those who are infected so that the rest of the population can go on with their lives and avoid the consequences of a long-lasting global shutdown.

This is a work in progress and there may be flaws in the above that I do not see. But I share this publically for what it is worth in dealing with the present crisis.

Corona Virus and Prophecy

I have been hesitant to speak out on the new corona virus (COVID-19) and its potential implications for prophecy and vice versa. There is so much that we don’t know yet. But with a total lockdown in the state of California and many other places (leaving the house only for exercise and food gathering), people are anxious and want to know if I have any advice.

First of all, take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of premature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And beyond that is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one in three, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”

The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The root word has the meaning of “destroying” and it came to have the meaning of “pestilence” or “plague,” hence the association with contagious disease, and often associated with animals; “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). It was how God planned to scare off the Canaanites so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the promised land (Num 14:12). It is was also a consequence of disrespecting the covenant, often associated with war and famine in the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of a city. War drives a people inside the walls, famine follows and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). This dever is not portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:24; 34:17; 38:2).

The Greek Bible (New Testament) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Late Greek manuscripts include pestilence in Matthew 24:7, probably because of familiarity with the Lucan wording. In other words, loimos/loimoi is one of the consequences of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” The only other text in the New Testament that contains a word often translated “pestilence” is Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence (Greek: thanatos—a common word for “death” and the usual translation of dever in the Greek OT). In historicist SDA interpretation, Revelation 6:8 is not a sign of the end but something common to the whole age between the opening of the scroll and the Second Coming. The one end-time text that would seem at all relevant here is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who had the mark of the beast. While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used.

The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. Pandemic is neither a “sign of the end” nor a direct, active punishment of God, but it is one of the consequences of sin in the broadest sense. In the OT contexts, it was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End.
Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but is not likely (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In South Korea, where testing is widespread, it is 0.7%. Current numbers for Germany (another nation ahead of the curve) are 0.3%, one-tenth of the rate reported in China and Italy (75 deaths out of 21,000 reported cases). In the USA, the current rate is about 1.2%.

My greater concern is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution in this country. In the words of Jesus, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.

If you want my speculation–for what it is worth, and it isn’t much–I think a couple years from now, we will consider the current, global response to COVID-19 an over-reaction. But since we will never know if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. But even if we find ourselves in the Kingdom a couple years from now (whether through death or the Second Coming), no one will complain that they are missing out on all the excitement here below.