I keep hearing the word "unprecedented" these days. Usually, it's someone who is reporting on the COVID-19 situation. I hear it most often from people (think government officials) in some position of responsibility who are floundering a bit with how, exactly, they should be responding. Often they use the word "unprecedented" to prevent or respond to criticism.
I get it. We all feel like the script just got thrown out and we are making things up as we go along. Improvising. It's uncomfortable.
But this situation is far from unprecedented. It's just unprecedented in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of the last few generations. A few examples of precedents:
1. The Spanish Flu. The flu epidemic of 1918 had significant differences from this pandemic. However, there were huge similarities as well. Trouble is, very few people today can speak from personal experience to that outbreak and the social consequences we experienced. Fear, social distancing, and radical changes in the way society operated were part of that epidemic as well.
A lesson to learn: Most of what we are hearing about social distancing, hygiene, and sheltering in place comes from hard lessons we didn't seem to learn quickly enough in 1918. The Biggest Lesson to Learn seems to be that we should take these measures very, very seriously.
2. In the 1400s, the Bubonic Plague devastated Europe. Estimates are that a third of the population of Europe died. Social structures, economic structures, political structures, religious structures... all were severely impacted. This pandemic is NOT the same as the plague, thank God, and I'm not saying we should jump to a place of despair or fear. Still, we can learn from what people endured at that time.
A lesson to learn: Much of what we now know about disease transmission grew out of the Black Death of the 1400s. This crisis will increase our knowledge base, without a doubt. Of course, the dark underside of this lesson is that we will feel the discomfort that comes with new learning. For what it's worth, this is why so many people are criticizing the government, CDC, hospitals, big pharma, or whatever for being under-prepared. We hate being uncomfortable. However, it's the necessary companion to expanding our knowledge base.
3. In the early centuries of Christianity's development, one action that set Christians apart from their neighbors is highly significant: When disease struck a city, most people fled (if they could) to the country. It was their version of social distancing. Christians, on the other hand, stayed in the city and cared for the sick. True, some of those Christians became sick and even died. But most survived, in large part because they had networks of people caring for one another. And a much higher percentage of those they cared for survived because they received even the most basic nursing care. (Michael Green did a great job documenting this in his excellent book The Rise of Christianity.)
A lesson to learn: This is perhaps the most important lesson for today. Here it is: Within the realms of wisdom and medical necessity, care for people. How? Well, you could start by calling people who might be in need of help. Then expand that to people who are likely lonely or afraid. Be a voice of compassion and reassurance. Call a teacher who had the end of their school year yanked out from under them and ask how they're doing. Call someone who is wheelchair-bound and worries about their respiratory system being compromised in the best of winters. Chat with them. Pray over the phone with them. The simple rule of thumb: When someone crosses your mind, call/text/email them.