Last year was one of shaken realities. The news from Wuhan, China was of an unknown virus claiming lives in unprecedented numbers. But China is across the world so the West continued the reality of our usual daily tasks of work, school, activities.
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Meanwhile, a virus was infiltrating the globe, silently leaping from one person to the next, one plane to the next, until its spread left no one untouched by COVID-19. By March of last year, our life was shaken to its roots.
Our Western assumptions about freedom and individualism were shattered. Governments wavered in their responses, creating a clash of two opposing forces. The culture of belief in the individual as master of his or her life led many to decide that following the rules was not for them. Our shaming culture bit back. It used social media posting and judgment to take a heavy hand to anyone, including politicians, who dared go against recommendations. Rule breakers received the harshest judgements.
Our First World sensitivities were not prepared for COVID-19, which only we with our sense of entitlement could call novel. We are accustomed to problems with solutions, diseases with treatment plans, access to money to provide for every contingency. COVID-19 allowed for none of these assurances. A virus with no cure, as easily acquired as the common cold or flu but with a higher likelihood of deadly consequence, is enough to terrify any Westerner.
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Government officials did their best to give the illusion of control with their promises that lockdowns would stop the spread, a vaccine would come soon, and free money would allow people to stay home and ‘stay safe.’ In fact, the virus spread, people died, and while the efforts of the government and citizens would have some effect on the outcome, there is no cure, there is no guarantee, there is no way to stay safe.
Take all the measures you like. You will reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19, but gain the risk of other ill-effects such as depression or anxiety. Our Western minds do not conform to this reality well, unlike those in less prosperous or war-torn countries who are accustomed to living daily with fears that shock us. People in less ‘developed’ nations are used to having diseases with no medicine. It is the status quo that losing your job will result in no income. The concept that there is no control over catastrophe befalling you is an ongoing reality.
Refugees in Bosnia, facing the cold, with only plastic walls and blankets for warmth, attest to this. Nigerians survive heartbreaking reality when their children are kidnapped into forced marriages in the name of religious cleansing. Trafficked women and children look to the future with no hope as their bodies are traded like cattle. Uighur Muslims in China face forced imprisonment and unspeakable atrocities. For us, natural disasters in places such as Haiti, Ethiopia, India, and Southeast Asia are the stuff of fleeting news videos. For those who live there, it can mean digging for survival with bare hands.
The Western world cries under the burden of COVID-19 while the majority of the world has been facing disease, war, extreme weather, and catastrophes as dire or worse than COVID-19 for centuries.
The hope and peace that the Western world espouses is a fleeting illusion. None of us is safe. People elsewhere in the world know this. Their governments are corrupt, their security is tenuous, and their personal situation is rife with daily difficulties. The West needs to learn this truth again, whether the system we live in covers the reality or not.
When we deny the reality of our helplessness, we deny our need for others. When we are oblivious to the systems that prop us up, we can blame those who lack such systems for the difficulties they face and congratulate ourselves on our successes. When we live as though we define our own destiny, we deny our community the benefit of our common membership, while exploiting the exact community we decry. When we pretend to control tomorrow, we forget the sovereignty of Him who created us and the natural order of the world we live in.
So where is our help and our salvation in the dire context this world gives us? As a Christian, I turn to Psalm 33 for testimony of the sovereignty of God in creation and His planned purposes amid the nations’ misguided attempts to control their fates. For members of the Christian community, in truth, our only hope is in God, for He provides people salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Regardless of the trials this broken world puts on us and the atrocities man will commit against each other, we believe God will reign and all repentant people can lift their eyes to Jesus in pleas for help and salvation. God never promises to give us lives free from pain, but He does allow us to cast our cares on him. Relationship with Him leads to a peace that surpasses understanding and true contentment, regardless of our circumstances.
The Western illusions that surround us have been shattered and we need to awaken to the need for sovereign, divine assistance out of this broken world. The end of the Psalm provides a daily prayer for each of us: “We wait in hope for the Lord, He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us our Lord, even as we put our hope in you.”
So how then shall we live? Start by listening more than speaking, giving more than getting, and looking outward more than inward. Love your neighbour as yourself, with the understanding that your neighbour is every person that walks the earth now and in the future. This is the beginning of serving God and your fellow man, which will cause a trickle effect of hope and love to spread across the globe with just as much contagion as any disease ever did.
Tara Vreugdenhil is a speech-language pathologist who lives and works in the Hamilton area.