Many people are worried about COVID-19. They think a lot of people will die from it. They worry that they might get it, or a loved one might get it. The news reports on the number of deaths every day. At the time of this writing there have been 22 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. 22 deaths is a lot of people, and each one of those was a precious life.
It is true that people die every day in the United States. In fact, approximately 7,452 people die every day in the US. That is a big number and each of those lives are important. Most people die of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, lung disease, or diabetes complications. Some people die of injuries or strokes. Many die of progressive dementia or old age. Influenza and pneumonia make the top 10 causes of death.
Every year, 30,000 to 60,000 people die in the US from influenza alone. So far this year, more than 20,000 people have died from influenza; 136 of those were children. Imagine if the news reported on the influenza deaths - literally right now 1,000x as many people have died from influenza compared with COVID-19! They would have a lot to say. But we don’t freak out every year when flu season arrives. I can’t even convince some people to get their flu shots.
Some people are remembering the Spanish Flu during this outbreak. The 1918 pandemic was very deadly. In New York City, >850 people died in one day from influenza. In Philadelphia, >500 people died every day for two weeks and people had to go door to door looking for dead bodies. In San Jose, doctors were exhausted, seeing >500 patients a day, most of whom were bedridden with fever and weakness. Patients’ lungs would fill up with fluid and blood and they would die within days of symptom onset. Young people and older people alike were dying. It was terrifying and it decimated the population. Nearly 200 previously healthy people died in San Jose alone. Heroic and sacrificial people volunteered to care for the sick, putting themselves at risk and sometimes losing their lives.
We aren’t seeing that kind of disease severity or extent right now. In fact, what we are seeing is not terribly different from a regular flu season. Much of the panic right now is misplaced, but it does have a silver lining. Ironically, because of the intense interest in hand sanitizer and handwashing this season, we may end up with fewer deaths than usual during the COVID-19 panic because of decreased influenza transmission this year.
The thing I love most about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic is the sacrificial courage of the ones who volunteered to care for the sick. Doctors and nurses were exhausted and dying, so a lot of people had to step up to help. In San Jose, two different orders of nuns volunteered their services. A real estate man gave them his car and they found a teenage boy to drive them from house to house. A banker named McLaughlin gave them money for supplies. (He ended up with a street named after him.) The nuns cared for household after household of fever-stricken, coughing, bedridden people all day long; feeding them, cleaning them, encouraging them, and giving them medicine (not that they had anything very effective). Then they went home late and boiled all of their clothes, slept for a little while, and got up again the next morning for another long day. I am certain they saved lives by just keeping people hydrated, fed, able to rest, and optimistic. Their selfless, courageous care is inspiring! They had confidence in their salvation and they lived lives of great courage.
In this time of panic and fear, we can be like those nuns. We know that we don’t have control over what happens on earth, but we can pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We can trust in a good God who loves us and has a purpose for us. Our God can use us in a mighty way to bring about his Kingdom – a Kingdom of sacrificial love where we don’t have to be afraid.