By DAN HALL
Apocalypse, panic, or reset?
“I’ve been to a world’s fair and two county picnics and haven’t seen anything like this!” goes one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people, Bobby Thompson. I’ve used it as my own since the first time I heard him say it in 1983. It describes that internal “Oh, wow … This is blowing my mind!”
I am not alone when I say that as I watch the global crisis unfolding in front of us, I’m stunned. But in all honesty, it’s not the COVID-19 pandemic that has stunned me. Rather, it’s the reaction that is, truly, completely baffling to me. I believe we have seen excessively worse situations that have created significantly less response. For some reason, this has taken on legs of its own.
In the movie “Men in Black,” Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is explaining to Agent J (Will Smith) why the government doesn’t simply admit the presence of aliens:
Smith: “Why don’t we just tell them? People are smart.”
Jones: “The person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”
Wise individuals get swept up into group-think and mob mentality. I believe we are seeing a lot of that now. Regardless of my view of the seriousness or insignificance of this outbreak, the collective panic is real, resulting in a devastating global impact.
So how do we, as believers, respond? Let me tackle three large questions.
What is real?
1. The panic is real.
There are varying degrees of opinion regarding this outbreak, from “This is the next great plague” to “Oh, brother!” I have friends who haven’t opened their door in three weeks, and I have friends who still left on a cruise. Within my own family, my six grown children (five of them with their own children) are divided between those who lean toward the “next plague” narrative and those who feel, “This is way overblown.”
What is undeniable is that EVERYONE is being impacted by the global panic regardless of whether they themselves are panicking.
2. The severity of the virus is real.
While neither a medical specialist nor an epidemiologist, I presently have a contract with the Mississippi State Department of Health. My specific area of responsibility includes both the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response (which mobilizes during any health crisis and emergency, from pandemics to hurricanes) as well as the Division of Epidemiology. This has allowed me a front-row seat to what’s happening in Mississippi.
According to TIME magazine, the CDC estimates that up to 42.9 million people got sick during the 2018-2019 flu season. Of those 42.9 million, 647,000 were hospitalized and 61,200 died (https://time.com/5610878/2018-2019-flu-season/). That’s a mortality rate significantly less than 1 percent of those estimated to be sick, and 9 percent of those hospitalized.
The qualities of COVID-19 that make it a significantly greater challenge than the “regular” flu are: 1) how long it can exist outside the host, therefore lengthening how contagious it can be even if you’re not around someone who is sick; 2) its exponential impact on the elderly and the autoimmunity deficiency population; 3) the severity of its symptoms in those who do experience it; and 4) the woefully inadequate capacity of healthcare facilities and supplies for the level and length of treatment needed to serve the more severely affected.
The Imperial College in the UK put out a report anticipating the spread and impact of the virus both in Great Britain and in the United States (https://doi.org/10.25561/77482). Seeking to present an objective, rational report, their findings and recommendations can scare the bejeebers out of you! The lingering effects of the virus may take up to 12 months to run its course. They do believe that with some of the more intense measures like self-quarantine, moving education to online for a season, and social distancing, the contagion is significantly lowered and shortened.
3. The economic impact is real.
Without boring you to death with the details, the global economic system is a complicated web of companies producing, consumers buying, and investors investing in stock markets operating based on an algorithm of all of it together. Bottom line: If one stick in this pile is significantly altered, the whole thing can go up in flames.
So the economic breakdown goes something like this: China’s productivity dropped because of all the sick people, which means businesses cannot make things they can sell with those Chinese goods, which means those businesses cannot make money, so investors giving money to those companies pull out their cash, leaving the businesses without cash flow, so they lay off people. Those people don’t have money to buy things, exasperating back around to the start of the cycle … thus starts the death spiral.
That’s what has happened. At the point of this writing (two weeks before publication), the last three years of gains have been wiped out in the stock market. The likelihood that will recover anytime soon is slim.
Are there any silver linings?
Back to the beginning of this article: What has stunned me the most has been the global reaction. But it has also got me thinking: “What’s really going on? What’s God doing in all of this?”
First, I believe there is a global “reset” going on. As a student of the stock market, I personally believe it was way overheated. Many of our attempts to “protect our money and way of life” weren’t always good monetary policy. This reset will have positive long-term benefit.
Second, we are being forced to do things differently. But it’s creating innumerable opportunities. Videoconferencing and the internet have allowed me to continue to serve my clients, do my school and even serve my church. Once we pull our head out of the fear and chaos, we discover new possibilities and open new opportunities. This has been a great time for our family to spend more time together, to knock out some projects and to talk about life itself.
Finally, I believe this reset will expose both our greed and our fragility. Jesus warned us in Matthew 6:24, “You cannot serve God and money.” I enjoy many of the things I do because I live in a culture that affords me those luxuries. But we always run a danger of falling in love with the blessing and forgetting the Blesser. This is a great time for us to realign our hearts and find our joy and confidence, not in our 401(k)s or growing bank accounts or wonderful vacations … as wonderful as those may feel … but in Christ Himself.
I’ve seen many churches more engaged with their people and their community than I’ve ever noticed before. I’ve heard many who feel this may be a spiritual turning point. I can’t disagree.
So, what do we do?
I’ve read quite a few opinion pieces, commentaries and other collective points of perspective. Some border on stupidity: “Build a bunker, buy gold and hide” to “Don’t worry about it.” If you’re in any leadership role (business owner, pastor, parent, educator, etc.), finding the balance between your personal opinion and the collective response is a challenge. Here is my checklist I’ve tried to follow:
1. Stay calm.
The self-defeating nature of panic requires someone to stand still while everyone is running in circles. Being frenetic does not facilitate anything productive. In fact, it feeds into its own frenzy. Whether you choose to sit by a body of water to pray or think, journal, go for a run or simply relax with a cup of coffee, slow your heart rate. Paul told his spiritual son Timothy, “Keep your head in all situations.”
2. Educate yourself.
I am not, by nature, a researcher. I want headlines and bottom lines. But when something this large occurs, we must educate ourselves. The internet and cable television often feed group-think in chaos, but they can also be valuable tools of information to the diligent and insightful seeker. Don’t just listen to your favorite cable station and believe you have a bead on things. Listen to people with whom you may even disagree and look for articles from reputable sources.
3. Use wisdom.
I was scheduled to be in Central America the last two weeks of March for alternative treatment for my underlying health issues. While I am in the high-risk group, I’ve not been concerned about this virus. Granted, I’m probably in denial. However, I AM terrified of getting quarantined in a developing nation! Only slightly less is the terror I feel of being quarantined on a military base after returning. The logistics of taking care of a quadriplegic my size and with my personality are daunting! I canceled the trip, not out of fear of coronavirus, but out of the reality that, regardless of my health, I cannot control whether somebody on my plane will test positive, resulting in me being stuck with personnel arguing over “who’s gonna take care of the crippled guy over there?” Wash your hands, and practice the discipline of social distancing, elbow bumps and other recommendations by our leaders and experts.
4. Serve others.
I’ve been so moved by stories of younger people going grocery shopping for older people and their families, in their neighborhoods or in their churches. I hear stories of people just wanting to call and check on others. We’ve all seen the videos of people on their balconies in apartment complexes leading in yoga exercises or songs. These types of crises allow us the opportunity to show Christ’s love to others in very tangible and existential ways. Let’s look for those opportunities!
5. Pull on your faith.
One of my favorite phrases in scripture is Paul’s exhortation to the church at Colossae: “Let the peace of Christ rule your hearts.” That word “rule” can also be translated into our English word “umpire.” If I’m willing to stay calm, I am more capable of hearing His guidance in my heart. Further, if I start down the road that’s not correct, I’ll hear Him warn me by shouting, “Foul,” allowing me to correct course.
In the last hundred years, we’ve emerged from two World Wars, the Spanish flu, the Cold War, ISIS, the Patriots winning six Super Bowls, and the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones (well, it’s yet to be seen if we can survive him!). Go back 500 years, and it’s even more daunting. Three thousand years? We ain’t got nothing on those folks!
It will be ugly for a little while, but it’s not the end. As people of faith, we have the added comfort of one of my favorite scriptures, Psalm 46, which begins:
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.”
Dan Hall is an executive and strategic coach to leaders and executive teams. He also works with organizations on team building, conflict resolution and communication skills. He and his wife, Hazel, have six children and four grandchildren. You can reach him at Dan@OnCourseSolutions.com.