Pandemics, Patient Zero and a Theological Reflection
Media coverage of the Swine Flu epidemic is about as extensive as fear of catching the disease, though cases worldwide are relatively few at this point and only beginning to present themselves. The media features images of pigs, shots of the Mexican military handing out surgical masks, empty streets, sports stadiums, and restaurants, and hospital emergency rooms filled with long lines of anxious citizens.
Meanwhile, newscasters press upon guest medical experts questions like, "Will this flu burn itself out with relatively few casualties, or will it become another 1918?" "How many might be likely to die worldwide?" "Who’s at greatest risk?" "Should people be traveling abroad?" and "What precautions can one take to keep from becoming a victim?"
In the meantime, reports continue to roll in on the latest numbers of sick and dead in Mexico City and notices of the disease’s spread to various other countries throughout the world.
The virus holds potential to affect us all because its new, so no one’s immune. The world has grown very small through travel and the disease’s progress has outrun most attempts to contain it. It is also personal to me because my elderly mom, brother and sister-in-law are in Mexico just now. They headed off before the news had broken clearly, hoping to have a relaxing and uneventful holiday.
If the outbreak becomes a pandemic, it won’t be the first. There have been notable pandemics in 1918, 1968 and 1975. Estimates suggest that the 1918 pandemic claimed between 20 and 50 million lives worldwide.
This is all very unsettling.
In the past day or so, there has been increasing media talk about "patient zero." Patient zero is the very first documented case of the disease. That person is of great interest to epidemiological investigation as a possible means to discovering the origin of the disease, mapping its spread and pursuing means to its eradication.
Sometimes there is great controversy and infamy attached to patient zero. Mary Mallon is a celebrated instance. She was an apparently healthy carrier of the disease typhoid fever. Many people were infected by her and she had to be quarantined to stop her spreading the deadly disease. Dubbed "Typhoid Mary," she came to epitomize the carrier or transmitter of anything undesirable, harmful or catastrophic.
In the case of Mexican Swine flu, "patient zero" may be a little boy named Edgar in a small town called La Gloria. He and his family live near large pig farming operations. He had the disease in March.
The development of a vaccination looks to be weeks or even months away. So the world, it seems, is bound to live for the foreseeable future in an attitude of maximum uncertainty and anxiety.
The drug Tamiflu may be helpful at mitigating symptoms, but it is uncertain whether this is just with milder variations of the flu. The Mexican version of the virus may be more robust and so less responsive. A further problem is that a course of this medication costs about $200. It is out of reach to many millions of people the world over.
With about 3,000 official reported cases in Mexico so far, and some 150 fatalities, the counsel to "Wash your hands" seems a rather meager stratagem.
A Theological Reflection
I’d be a fool to assert specifically why this has all happened, beyond the general physical and theological observation that the world is broken and dangerous and we occupy our place in it dangerously and brokenly. But there will, no doubt, be those who confidently nominate themselves God’s spokespersons on this whole affair, declaring in most specific terms that Mexico City committed this or that sin and that is why people are getting sick and dying.
I’m neither a prophet nor an apostle. And I’m certainly not God.
Moreover, I’m cautioned by Jesus himself who ruled out the question of moral cause and effect in the specific circumstance when his own disciples asked it about a man born blind (John 9:1-7). Jesus declared the man’s tragic circumstance the opportunity for a demonstration of the miraculous, healing power of God in his life.
I do, however, see the present worldwide threat as a powerful illustration–an extended metaphor, as it were–of the human predicament of sin before a holy God.
At Romans 5:12-21, Paul identifies Adam as "patient zero." He writes, "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men…" (v. 12) In this case, patient zero was fully culpable and universally infectious. His single action of rebellious independence from God was, has been, and will continue to be the physical and spiritual death of us all. No amount of human hand-washing or isolation is able to contain or neutralize the virulent contagion. The gates are down; the borders have been breached.
Paul continues that there is only one cure for the human predicament … and it was costly.
He writes, "if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (v. 15) As powerful and universally damaging as the "infection" of sin brought into the world by Adam was, God provided through his son Jesus a more powerful and effective "cure." His provision in the death of his son on a Roman cross for our sin is decisively effective and universally available to faith.
The world desperately needs the cure. It should seize the cure. And it should celebrate the cure.