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As the epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic moved to the United States—with the number of new cases doubling every two days—a hush moved into the streets. It’s a quiet eerily similar to what I first experienced in the Middle East, walking streets of cities and towns ISIS had emptied. A city without people is like a graveyard, one of the soldiers on patrol told me then.
Now we all know. Instead of anticipating a threat from the skies or the next blind alleyway, we sequestered Americans know it’s invisible, gathering, and potentially anywhere, everywhere. As the circles of COVID-19 draw more tightly around each of us, we may bicker less about its fury. The outbreak took 67 days from its December start in China to reach 100,000 cases worldwide, 11 days to reach 200,000 cases, four days to pass 300,000, then just two more days to pass 400,000.
The U.S. outbreak is jolting Americans just as the contagion hits hardship parts of the world—Africa and the Middle East in particular. For the first time I can remember since 9/11, aid workers and other contacts in those parts are checking in on me, asking about my family. My question is: Will we remember them?
As our American medical crisis deepens, will we in the United States remember it is possibly worse elsewhere? As the U.S. economic crisis squeezes us, will we in our churches—on our missions committees, our nonprofit boards, in our personal and corporate budgets—remember not to forget those who enter this pandemic with no resources and no reserves?
To be sure, the impoverished and war-torn streets have emptied too. And the virus in recent weeks has drained frontline medical clinics and refugee camps of needed human resources. “Here in East Africa, where the small number of proven cases is rising rapidly, schools and businesses are shuttered and concern about the unseen infectious enemy is ever present,” wrote Rob Congdon, a doctor with African Mission Healthcare. He helped restart a medical clinic in South Sudan at Doro, where more than 140,000 displaced people now live in camps.
Congdon was back at the clinic to train and encourage South Sudanese health workers. But he had to cut the trip short to catch a medical flight in a dust storm to neighboring Kenya. His only hope to return to the States was to board a flight from Nairobi departing 10 minutes before a midnight deadline when all international flights from Kenya cease.
No one knows how long such doors will remain closed, but Congdon added: “For many of our African friends there is a remarkable, steadfast faith in God’s goodness, even in the midst of the shaking. People who’ve learned to trust God in the uncertainty of tropical disease, civil war, and hunger develop an unshakable awareness of the Lord’s trustworthiness.”
The Middle East also will struggle to shoulder its own fight against the coronavirus. Syria reported its first official case on March 23, the same day the aid group I wrote about two weeks ago, Partners Relief and Development, received government approval to provide diagnosis and care for coronavirus patients at a clinic near Idlib. “Test kits are being sent and doctors are preparing themselves for the increased precautions that need to be taken,” Partners head Steve Gumaer told me. Potential cases have gone undetected for weeks, and the clinic must rely on Syrian doctors. Like so many other groups, Partners’ expat workers had to evacuate.
Jesus often touched the people he healed, including lepers. We are all learning that “a video stream and text messages are no substitute for embodied life,” said René Breuel, pastor of an evangelical church in hard-hit Italy. May our own trials in coming days not harden us against the suffering of others. May they tenderize us and speed our care for those who shelter in place with no shelter, or running water, or hospitals. I have a feeling that we may need those who already have survived war to show us what combat-tested resilience really looks like.