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On a chilly early spring day, an 894-foot long white ship, with red health crosses decaled on its stern, bow, sides and smokestack, was a welcome sight as it sailed into New York City harbor. The Navy hospital ship containing 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms was deployed to provide relief for the city’s overwhelmed hospitals.
The city and the state were the hardest hit in the nation. “Please come help us in New York now,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said as the death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 1,200 in late March.
Even before the governor’s appeal for more medical staff and equipment, close to 80,000 former nurses, doctors and other professionals were stepping up to volunteer, and the Navy hospital ship—the same one sent to the city after the September 11 terrorist attacks—had arrived. Makeshift hospitals began appearing, from the indoor tennis center that is the site of the U.S. Open tournament to the mammoth Javits Convention Center.
Yet the death toll was so rapid, some hospitals resorted to parking refrigerated trailers outside their doors to collect the dead. At two Brooklyn hospitals, videos posted by bystanders and a medical employee showed workers in masks and gowns loading bodies onto trailers from gurneys on the sidewalk.
Few anticipated the speed at which the novel coronavirus would spread. It took over three months from the moment COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan, China, to reach 500,000 confirmed cases. Only seven days later, that number doubled.
Yet these numbers are regarded with skepticism by public health experts because of different counting practices, a lack of testing in places, the numerous mild cases that have been missed, and perhaps government efforts to downplay the severity of the crisis.
If anything is for certain, however, as quickly as the virus spread, so did the change in life’s norms.
“A major coronavirus pandemic may mean social consequences we never foresaw and painful shifts away from economic models on which many jobs depend—on top of the deaths and suffering the virus itself will bring,” Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff said. “But this crisis could end up being less like the banking crash and more like a war, an event throwing everything high enough into the air that some of it never returns to Earth.”
However, unlike literal war, when people pull together, the COVID-19 crisis is one in which communities stay apart from each other to fight an unseen opponent.
At first, this resulted in uncanny scenes of a new way of life: Hand-sanitizing stations at every corner of the grocery store. Italian musicians quarantined in their apartments performing from balconies. Physical education teachers posting digital gym classes for students required to stay home from school. Older members of society frequenting Skype and FaceTime to interact with their grandchildren to abide by government-mandated social-distancing rules.
People were forced to think through all aspects of their lives: “Am I doing all I can to avoid contracting or spreading the virus?” “Am I prepared for a shutdown that will keep me in my house for an indefinite amount of time?” “How can I carry on my lifestyle and maintain relationships without leaving my residence?”
As the weeks passed, the consequences became more devastating.
Millions were furloughed, had salaries cut or were let go from work. Jobless numbers exceeded those of the Great Depression as the number of Americans filing for unemployment surpassed 16 million in three weeks—accounting for 10 percent of the workforce.
Hundreds of companies were forced to withdraw financial projections for the year as the extent of economic damage remained unknown—yet certain losses are ensuring they continue to shed jobs.
The pandemic is pushing the global economy into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. The head of the International Monetary Fund said nearly every nation will see a drop in living standards. “Just three months ago, we expected positive per capita income growth in over 160 of our member countries in 2020,” Kristalina Georgieva, managing director and chairwoman of the IMF, stated. “Today, that number has been turned on its head: we now project that over 170 countries will experience negative per capita income growth this year.”
And with stores, restaurants and schools closing, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables have been plowed over or left to rot because farmers cannot sell them. Dairy farmers resorted to pouring out their fresh milk, knowing it cannot be used.
“This is a catastrophe,” a Florida tomato grower told The Associated Press. “We haven’t even started to calculate it. It’s going to be in the millions. Losses mount every day.”
“We may be entering an era where things that once seemed impossible, become almost impossible to avoid,” Ms. Hinsliff said.
A Pew Research Center poll revealed some of the profound impact on life patterns. Nearly 9 in 10 adults in the United States said their life has changed to at least some extent.
“Amid widespread calls from experts for Americans to socially distance from one another to avoid spreading the virus, what recently seemed like mundane daily activities now elicit concerns from large swaths of the population. About nine-in-ten U.S. adults (91%) say that, given the current situation, they would feel uncomfortable attending a crowded party. Roughly three-quarters (77%) would not want to eat out at a restaurant. In the midst of a presidential election year, about two-thirds (66%) say they wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a polling place to vote. And smaller but still substantial shares express discomfort even with going to the grocery store (42%) or visiting with a close friend or family member in their home (38%).
“How are people adapting their behavior in light of the outbreak? Four-in-ten working-age adults ages 18 to 64 report having worked from home because of coronavirus concerns—a figure that rises to a majority among working-age adults with college degrees and upper-income earners.”
The long-term social effects could be staggering. In an interview with NPR, Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic magazine, speculated public health will drive national policy in the same way the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “really shook the American psyche and set priorities for the entire country going forward,” namely a focus on counterterrorism.
Mr. Yong also cited “mental health effects to watch out for” such as “agoraphobia, fear of the outdoors, or post-traumatic stress disorder,” signs of which have been surfacing in Wuhan.
In the U.S., with nowhere else to turn and more time at home to reflect, many are turning to a practice typically only ever employed in the greatest of crises.
According to Pew, 55 percent of Americans say they have “prayed for an end to the spread of coronavirus.” The majority of those identify as Christians, but 15 percent say they seldom or never pray and 24 percent say they do not belong to a religion.
In addition, President Trump declared March 15 a national day of prayer specifically “for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.”
A White House directive for an individual day of prayer (aside from the annual National Day of Prayer in May enacted in 1952) is not unprecedented—but it is rare. Abraham Lincoln signed a Congressional resolution in 1863 for a day of prayer and fasting amid the Civil War. President John Adams declared the one before in 1798.
For a nation that has declining church attendance and is turning away from religion, this is a stark change in attitude. Why of all things do people choose to pray in times of major change?
Hard times often lead people back to religion, to get on their knees and pray for help or merely deliverance. The existence of hardships is explained in the Bible, but the answer may not be as expected: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also has set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him” (Ecc. 7:14). Good times are set against bad times. The one follows the other in a continual cycle.
Notice this verse points out that God is the one who “has set the [good/bad times] over against the other.” Why?
Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 reveals more of God’s purpose in permitting suffering: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”
Though these passages may be sobering—and perhaps even shocking—they prove God places great importance on building character. Through trying times, “the heart is made better.”
The apostle Paul also showed that after a life of severe periods of hardship he learned “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
In verse 12 he continued, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”
Paul learned that through days of adversity the heart truly is made better. For more information, read our article Why Does God Allow Suffering?.
What about your “heart”? During this time of national adversity, consider the things in your life that you have taken for granted. Consider the plight of all those in less-fortunate circumstances around the world. Consider what you can do to ensure you make it through and become “better”—stronger.
Each of the articles in this section is designed to help you analyze the impact of the coronavirus on the world, but also to allow self-reflection in this “day of adversity.”