From the Editor
Pandemics … Then and Now
“God has continually proven His ability to sustain the entire universe by His Word, while still paying close attention, even at molecular levels, to all that concerns us humans—the crown of His creation (Psalm 8; Matthew 10:30-31).”
Taking courage in the reality of “now” and “not yet”
Grappling with the barrage of constantly changing news and views around the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently took some time to learn more about how humans have wrestled historically with plagues and public health crises. In the Bible, plagues are primarily referenced in the Old Testament. There were, most famously, the 10 plagues that Egypt faced (Exodus 7-12). In this and other instances, there was an outcome God was specifically seeking, without which relief from the suffering would not come. In looking at occurrences of global sickness in more recent times, the sheer number of people who have lived and died through this kind of tragedy was striking. Reflecting on the ebb and flow of life revealed in human health statistics can leave us with varied emotions depending on our worldviews, our faith background, or even our temperament. It can inspire pride in our progress in areas like medicine and technology over the centuries or spark fear of a recurrence of some of the darkest moments civilizations have faced.
In the Middle Ages, about 25 million people are estimated to have died in Europe from “the plague,” an illness labelled as “The Black Death,” between 1347 and 1351. The disease manifested as an infectious fever transmitted from rodents to humans by the bite of infected fleas. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 per cent of the population of the places affected died, causing significant disruption to European medieval society. Governing authorities were viewed with suspicion, and upheaval and uprisings became common. Religious authorities also came under questioning, and understanding of faith for many people was challenged:
“Traditional authority—both governmental and from the church—was questioned for how could such disasters befall a people? Were not governors and God in some way responsible? Where did this disaster come from and why was it so indiscriminate? At the same time, personal piety increased and charitable organisations flourished.”2
Towns and villages were completely abandoned. The Black Death epidemic had run its course by the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared every few generations for centuries.
The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history, caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. About 500 million people—or one-third of the world’s population of 1.5 billion—became infected with this virus.3 The number of deaths was estimated to be between 20 million and 100 million people worldwide, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the United States.4 (The U.S. population was just over 103 million people at that time.5) It is estimated that the Spanish Flu killed some 50,000+ Canadians6 when citizens were estimated to number just over eight million.7
The 1918 pandemic arrived in Canada with returning troops at the end of the First World War and made its way into even the remotest communities, with entire villages being wiped out—a devastating loss when added to the demise of 60,000 Canadians killed in service during the First World War (1914-18).8 Some areas unsuccessfully tried quarantine. Medical resources and staff were quickly strained, and economic disturbance soon followed with the disruption in labour resources. Municipal governments closed all except necessary services, and provinces enacted laws regarding quarantine and enforced the wearing of masks in public.9
We are now navigating another pandemic going into its second year but dominating our annual planning calendars for a third cycle. And the usual stresses and traumas of life have not eased up—they carry on, no respecters of “unprecedented times.” Work, ministry and personal life feel chaotic. Collectively we have suffered much, even if not necessarily in the same ways. Some are in deep mourning over loved ones lost to COVID-19 or struggling with their own recovery, while others have yet to personally know anyone who was faced with a positive diagnosis. Even as I write these words, that kind of scenario appears to be changing, with a new variant spreading fast.
The remembrance of past global crises and the current prolonged state of uncertainty and disorder can leave us feeling insignificant, vulnerable or without purpose or true direction in our own lifetimes. I lament regularly that this challenging season was preceded by several years of general decline in Bible reading and literacy. I’ve seen and heard the sense of despair that has overtaken many who are living in isolation or in fear, unable to take comfort in God’s presence or promises for either this life or the next. But no matter our circumstances, those who choose to look for God are promised that they will find Him as they search wholeheartedly (Jeremiah 29:11-13). God has continually proven His ability to sustain the entire universe by His Word, while still paying close attention, even at molecular levels, to all that concerns us humans—the crown of His creation (Psalm 8; Matthew 10:30-31). He has also reassured us that His plans and purposes were established before the foundation of the world, and that each of us has a special place in that plan (Ephesians 1:3-6; 2:10; 2 Timothy 1:9). His power to fulfil those plans through us—even in a pandemic—doesn’t rely on our fully understanding every step of His plan, but that we remain faithful to whatever light we do have (Proverbs 3:5-6).
The collective trauma we are experiencing can help us acknowledge our need for supernatural comfort; there is no shame in feeling we just cannot manage our situations ourselves. God reassures us of His impartial compassion for each of us. We have His promise that, regardless of where we live or what level of discomfort we are experiencing, He is close to the broken-hearted and rescues those whose spirits are crushed (Psalm 34:18). He promises that rest and strength follow quietness and repentance (Isaiah 30:15), and that our faith is of great worth (1 Peter 1:3-9). It is being refined in ways we can’t see as we are shaped by this season of prolonged and unwanted discipline (Hebrews 12:11). Even as we consider the billions who have gone before us and those still to come, each of us must have confidence in our unique value in His eyes, and in His sovereignty over the ordering of our steps and our lifetimes. And nothing is a limitation when placed in God’s hands—not our fears, not our weakness, not our failures, not our perception of a lack in some area. Everything becomes an asset if we are taking our steps by faith. We can be encouraged in that tension between the “now” and the “not yet,” knowing that trouble, sickness and death will not have the final word (Revelation 22:1-4). Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, is still near.
- Mark Cartwright, “Black Death,” March 28, 2020, World History Encyclopedia, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Black_Death.
- “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed March 20, 2019, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.
- “U.S. Population from 1900,” Demographia, accessed November 1, 2021, http://www.domographia.com/db-uspop1900.htm.
- Janice Dickin, Patricia G. Bailey, and Erin James-Abra, “1918 Spanish Flu in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, published online March 18, 2020, last edited March 19, 2020, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1918-spanish-flu-in-canada.
- K. G. Basavarajappa and Bali Ram, “Historical Statistics of Canada,” Population and Migration, Statistics Canada, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-516-x/sectiona/4147436-eng.htm
- Dickin, Bailey, and James-Abra, “1918 Spanish Flu in Canada.”
This article appeared in the January/February/March 2022 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. ©2022 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.