The virus: can we cope with what we can't eradicate?
The most sombre fact to emerge from yesterday’s Coronavirus briefing was that the virus is never going to go away. It is here to stay and, looked at steadily, and in isolation from everything else that we know, that thought is enough to drive us to despair. Are we to live in lockdown for ever, our garden-centres closed, our lives overshadowed by the daily death-tolls, our dying dying alone, and our dead buried with little opportunity for the expression of grief?
It’s a grim picture of an invisible and inescapable occupying army, its death-squads lurking for ever at every corner.
Until we take a dose of realism. We lived for centuries with the knowledge that smallpox had not been eradicated, and even now, despite the vaccines, there is a real risk of its recurring. Malaria, too, is still with us, as are influenza, and tuberculosis, but as things now stand, none of these lethal conditions requires us to live in permanent lockdown.
But there is one vital difference. Uneradicated these potential causes of pandemics may be, but for each of them there is both a vaccine which keeps them under control, and medication which gives good hope of a cure. These were developed by scientists working under unimaginably primitive conditions, yet their efforts ultimately benefited the whole world.
Today, in the sophisticated laboratories of Oxford University and Imperial College, London, some of the best brains in the world are working day and night to understand this invisible enemy, identify its weaknesses, and invent a vaccine which will give us immunity. It is highly unlikely that this will ever lead to its being eliminated: like malaria and influenza it will continue to stalk the earth and claim its annual toll of victims, but once we have a vaccine Covid 19 will never again reduce us to global paralysis.
But we need patience. The great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards died in 1758 as a direct result of a smallpox vaccination which went badly wrong. In his case, the vaccination probably consisted of inoculating the divine with (supposedly) a mild dose of cowpox, a related disease found in cattle, but although most modern vaccines are synthetic (created in the laboratory), and the risk of contamination much lower, the shadow of disaster is always there, and great credit is due to those who this very day have volunteered for the first clinical trials at Oxford.
That is a critical moment in the fight against the coronavirus, but neither the excitement, nor the gravity of the crisis, should tempt us into dispensing with vital safeguards. The public must not rush the politicians, nor the politicians the scientists.
Amid all the talk of an invisible enemy, let’s not forget that we also have an invisible Friend. As the Apostle James reminds us, every good and perfect gift comes from God. That includes front-line doctors and nurses, hospital-porters and cleaners, those working in care-homes, and those who deliver care to the elderly in their own homes. And it includes, too, the front-line scientists engaged in the urgent quest for a vaccine, and while we thank God for their gifts of intellect, skill and professionalism, we pray that he will not leave them to work alone, but will personally guide them to the virus’s innermost secrets and defence-mechanisms.
It was not of his creation. It is a monstrous perversion which has laid humanity prostrate before it. But by his grace, we shall rise again.