During the 20th Century, our understanding of viruses as infectious agents expanded from basic discovery to sophisticated levels of technical knowledge. Significant advances in chemistry, physics and molecular biology during the past fifty years or so have revolutionised our ability to study viruses.
The nucleic acids contained in viruses enable them (upon entering a living host) to reproduce, synthesise unique proteins and change cellular functions. Although viruses are not fully categorised as ‘living’ organisms, they are found wherever there is life and are likely to have been around for as long as living organisms have existed upon the earth.
When we hear about viruses in the public sphere, we primarily link viruses with disease but viruses are also considered to be a natural means of transferring genetic material between species. This increases genetic diversity and assists the process of evolution. Viruses could well have contributed significantly to early evolution during the time of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) over 3.5 billion years ago. It is this common ancestor that forms the base of the ‘tree of life’ that scientists study today.
It is understandable that public interest in viruses primarily focus on the impact of viral infections in the modern world. Human diseases caused by viruses include the common cold, flu, rabies and chickenpox. The study of the transmission and control of virus infections in humans is known as viral epidemiology.
Research reveals that conspiracy theories can flourish in times of crises in society, such as virus outbreaks. There are numerous conspiracy theories in relation to coronavirus that spread over the internet. These include the notion that coronavirus is really a biological weapon created for nefarious purposes or was concocted by pharmaceutical companies so that money could be made by developing a vaccine.
Equally worrying are the religious arguments that claim coronavirus is an act of God to punish communists, atheists, migrants, sinners or the modern world in general. Such thinking is fueled by fear and hate rather than science or any aspect of the reality of love that we aspire to. This includes any reasonable view of God.
Conspiracy theorists seek to impede our view of reality and harm society. For believers who struggle with science, a general rule of thumb should be that any idea that only espouses fear and hate has nothing to do with God. Simply put, the coronavirus is not an act of God nor is it some dubious act of scientists. If anything, scientists are at the forefront of helping the world to limit the suffering caused by disease.
In the modern age, several viruses have emerged that occupy significantly enlarged ecological roles. This has led to disease epidemics in places where they have never previously existed. This is most likely related to significantly increased international travel, climate change, changing human behaviours and our reliance on a global economic model.
The rising importance of viruses in global health is inevitable. Rather than shake our fist at science, other people or God, we should be facing up to the reality of the world we live in by harnessing our better natures to do everything possible to limit the impact of dangerous viruses supported by scientific evidence, sound common sense and political will.
God is the giver of every good and perfect gift rather than an insurance policy against poor choices. It is worth exploring how viruses that originate in animal populations with limited effects pose such risks for human populations and what can be done about it. These are largely scientific questions that have the potential to shape our understanding of God’s beloved world.
It is noteworthy that the Bible advises hygiene practices and food preparation methods that minimise the growth of epidemics. Though some of us may view such writings as irrelevant, hygiene continues to be a major preventative measure in combating modern viruses.
There is no doubt that medical missionaries will provide advice, help and care for those who suffer the worst effects of the virus. Though some people in today’s world mock prayer, I think that we can all agree that prayer, at the very least, can direct our efforts especially during times of difficulty.
We pray especially for the scientists who seek to understand and limit the effects of coronavirus. Guide the intentions and actions of those who work in healthcare and governmental agencies so that human suffering is limited and that every opportunity is taken to learn from this epidemic.
We pray for all cleaners and those who self-isolate to contain the spread of the virus. God’s love is often demonstrated through people so let us also pray that we can each take care of ourselves and others with compassion and love.