“Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
This classic rabbinic line describes the fact that human life is greatly precious in the eyes of God. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Luke 6:9), he preached a similar idea that is well-known in Judaism — if a human life is in danger, almost all laws could be set aside for the reason of pikuach nephesh — to “save life.”1
With this in mind, I feel it’s imperative to talk to you about the COVID-19 situation, because it is a life or death issue right now. If you only know my writing on Jesus’ Jewish context, you might not be aware that my Ph.D. is actually in biology, and for several years I taught as a college professor. The skill I use in both careers is to dig into the primary data. I was originally trained to do this in the world of biology, but now I do this with the Bible and ancient texts.
I’m writing this because I am concerned for my readers (Americans, mainly) who are worn out by all the shouting headlines and feel like everything is over-hyped. They hate politicians, and the panic on social media makes them think people are losing their minds. The doomsday talk about COVID-19 doesn’t make sense to them, because it seems like a just a bad flu. People die of the flu every day! What is the big deal?
Let’s look at some data together.
What I wanted to do is to take a calm look at some data together with you, without any crazy headlines or political spin. I want to show you some basic details about what is going on. I’m not trying to sell you anything or change how you vote. My goal is for you to just see the situation for yourself.
Let’s look at what’s been going on with COVID-19 this past week in Michigan, where I live.
Last Tuesday, March 10th, we had our first COVID-19 case diagnosed.
Two days later, March 12th, we had 12 cases.
As I write this on Saturday, March 14th we have 33 cases.* (See 3/21 update below)
This doesn’t seem like much, in light of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from seasonal flu. Why all the concern? It’s because the trend in Michigan is the same as the rest of the world, where the number of cases is doubling every 3-4 days. See the image below from this data site.
This is what is called an exponential increase. That means that the numbers start off very small but then compound over time, so that later the rate of increase grows enormous. This is happening because the Coronavirus is new and no one in the world is immune. Cases are growing exponentially and mostly unchecked.
If we have 33 cases in Michigan right now (3/14),* what will happen in the future? Let’s estimate from the data from other places. To do this I found data at the World Health Organization website at this link.
On March 1, just two weeks ago, the UK had 36 cases, about what Michigan has. As I write this (March 14) the UK has 1,140. (3/21-3,983 cases + 177 deaths)
On March 1, Germany had 130. Now (3/14) they have 4,585. (3/21-19,848 cases + 67 deaths)
On March 1, Spain had 84 cases. Now (3/14) they have 6,391. (3/21-20,410 cases + 1043 deaths)
So, within a couple weeks, we can pretty much guess that Michigan will have at least 1000 cases, because this is what is happening everywhere else. What about two weeks after that? Let’s keep looking at the numbers.
On March 1, Iran had 978 cases. Now (3/14) they have 12,729. (3/21-19,644 cases + 1,433 deaths)
On March 1, Italy had 1694 cases. Now (3/14) they have 21,157. (3/21-47,021 cases + 4,032 deaths) Their health care system is in crisis and they cannot treat all the dying right now.
Looking at these trends, Michigan could have 13,000 cases within a month. This is just a guestimate from reading the data, and I’m not an epidemiologist. But please note that I’m also not exaggerating or trying to mislead you, I’m just pointing out what the trends in the numbers look like from what has happened in other areas. The exponential growth is what is important, and I don’t think this is communicated very well by many sources. *But see note below (added 3/21/20)*
What’s happening is that each country initially has just a few people infected and thinks its no big deal. But within weeks they have thousands of very sick people and hospitals are overwhelmed.
My overall point is that while you hear a lot of breathlessly over-hyped reports in the news, the COVID-19 pandemic is a terribly serious situation that is growing worse by the day. I hope you are praying often about this.
The Exponential Curve is Key
Why am I writing about this topic instead of sticking to Jesus’ first century context? For two reasons. First, because to save a life is to save a world. I can’t just sit on the sidelines and let people be misled by media headlines. I feel like I am serving Christ by showing you what’s going on.
Second, there is a way to decrease the loss of life, and it involves you, my readers. If we can lower the overall spread of infection, (“flatten the curve“) by being extremely careful about spreading germs, hospitals will have longer to respond and not be overwhelmed by patients. People will receive better care, and, Lord willing, given some months time, new medications and even a vaccine can be developed.
The key is that on an exponential curve, tiny changes early on make an enormous difference later. It is critical to get as many people as possible to change their behavior and do it quickly — to practice social distancing and not spread germs. Time is of the essence to change people’s behavior. That’s why governments are taking drastic steps that seem to be overreaching.
Because people don’t understand this, they are not changing their behavior, so the numbers are still increasing rapidly in many places. (See this article – “A Coronavirus Tale from Italy: Don’t Do What We Did.”)
Many people see it as a personal decision. They say to themselves, “We’ll keep grandma safe but if I catch it, I’ll just get over it.” (Which is often not true — it can be very serious.) But every person who catches it infects more and more people, which drives the numbers up exponentially.
What to do Today
Today is the day you can love your neighbor with every action you take. You don’t need to panic and go out and buy toilet paper and groceries — that’s foolish and useless. But stop spreading germs!
There is actually one more thing you can do that is even more urgent. You need to persuade your friends who see COVID-19 as a political stunt or as media over-hype that the situation is indeed serious. Don’t yell at them, just show them the numbers. Get them to realize they need to change their behavior as quickly as possible. Do this today!
And of course do not panic, but pray diligently. May the LORD have mercy on us all.
1 For more on pikuach nephesh, see my book Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2012), chapter 10, “Thinking with Both Hands.”
Update, 3/21/20: As of yesterday, a week after I told you that we had 33 cases, Michigan now has 787 cases and 6 deaths. We had our first reported case only 10 days ago. Here are the numbers for Michigan right now:
One reader noted that we actually don’t know the exact numbers of cases because we haven’t done much testing. The increase that you see above is somewhat distorted by the fact that once testing begins, more cases are found. Very true. My point wasn’t to do math, but to show you that the pattern we are seeing in Michigan is happening everywhere on the planet. First a few cases turn up, then a few weeks later the numbers rise astronomically and then deaths after that. (See this article for more math.)
Also note, I am intentionally sharing only reported case numbers, not what is theorized, because many people aren’t convinced about how far widely COVID-19 has spread. The very problem I’m trying to address is the fact that theoretical numbers sound like hysterical speculation to the unconvinced, so many people have stopped listening. So I’m only sharing actual reported data, even though I know it isn’t complete.
Here are more articles that are must reads:
Young and Unafraid of the Corona Virus – Newsweek
Corona Virus – Why You Must Act Now – Medium –
Cancel Everything – The Atlantic
Another recommended read is chapter 13 in Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, by Osterholm and Olshaker.
Michael Osterholm is an epidemiologist at the forefront of the field. Look for interviews where he explains what’s going on, like this one.
New: This video, called “Why Fighting the Coronavirus Depends on You” is very good.
Karen Golden says
Excellent. Thank you!
Dave Rush says
Lois, I’m one who has zero trust in the politicians and media (they have a habit of lying and blowing things out of proportion) and have believed this whole thing is a political/media stunt. I have believed this is simply a new strain of the flu that’s overblown. Your article has convinced me that I’ve had a misconception from the beginning.
Thank you so much for writing. Who knows, maybe you’ve saved a life.
Lois Tverberg says
Thanks so much for letting me know. Please share if you think it will help others.
Ronald Hession says
Lois, I also thank you for your calm and clear manner of explaining the situation. Believe me that I believe any death is a irretrievable loss, even if we are destined to die. I believe that I am most worried about the fact that this was not done by people rising to do their personal responsibility in a bad situation, but by Government order as a requirement. It says something about who we are or at least who we think we are. In my understanding of history, when you force people to do the right thing, they fight you because you did not respect them enough to expect them to take responsibility for what they do. It becomes a Catch-22 situation; you get neither what you hoped for or expected.
Donald B Johnson says
Beth Immanuel in Hudson, WI (where Daniel Lancaster is a leader) has said it is a mitzvah on the order of saving a life to practice social distancing.
Thank you for addressing the virus. It is so hard to know who is can be trusted.
Lois B says
I too, say thank you for sending this. As a Godly author and one of strong science background it comforts me to see you affirm the wisdom of the precautionary measures outlined on the news. God is faithful & is still in control in the midst of this health storm. Amen!
Mary VanDerPuy says
Thank-you for this fact based assessment of the crisis. May everyone take this seriously.
Thank you, Lois. This is the best thing I could have read.
Andrea Kirby says
I have never been a vulnerable personality but now — at age 79– I am. I am in control of how I not only protect myself but everyone around me. That is my job and I have the power to be good that!! Thank you, Lois
Ernie Atkinson says
Timely, scientific advice based on evidence … Grace
Ann Spangler says
Thank you, Lois, for putting on your biologist/researcher hat. Things seem to be unfolding like a slow motion train wreck right now. So glad there is yet time to improve the situation. I have always appreciated the views of Michael Osterholm, whom you cite as a foremost infectious disease expert. He’s no politician. Just a scientist who knows his stuff and tells it like it is.
Lois Tverberg says
So true. Osterholm has been the expert to go to for decades now. He went to the college I went to, by the way. My sister was in his class.
Ray Beere Johnson II says
Lois, before I read this, I had followed news reports and checked various articles about the new virus. I’d come to much the same conclusion you explain, but I still would like to thank you for writing and posting this. First, because it makes me more sure my own conclusion was the right one – I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic. Second, we need more sane, decent voices offering the truth. Accurate information is more important than pushing any agenda – as all too many voices on either side are guilty of doing. And, as you observed, the media is not doing a good job of relaying this to people.
I would urge you to consider writing a variant of this piece and releasing it for general republication. I’m a writer, if a very minor one – that’s not advice I give anyone lightly. But in these times and such a dire situation, it seems as if your sanity is badly needed.
Thank you so much! I repent of my ignorance and am grateful for your help in understanding.
Sandy Byrd says
I too would like to thank you for your factual, honest, and clear explanation of this situation.
Like many who have commented I do not trust the media and many of the biased politicians and
career government employees.
I am trusting our dear heavenly Father to turn what is meant for evil into an abundance of good for the glory of His kingdom.
Anna Scantlan says
Thank you Lois for sharing this information as well as your post from a few days ago. (You also shared an article in the comments and one in particular caught my attention and fully convinced me of the gravity of the situation by helping me understand the true issue with the exponential growth leading to flooding the hospitals with sick people to the point of disaster and the need to “flatten the curve.” I also shared it with my husband and we both are taking it quite seriously now… hopefully in time to make a difference.
May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you. May He have mercy on our nation.
This is an excellent article. BUT the key to our global future is when will the exponential initial Circe flatten out, like South Korea seems to be already. But take care!
Willie K says
Good eye-opener, Lois.
The disease cannot be just be wished away. Everyone can play a role to check its spread.
While I agree with health precautions I am not so sure about your extrapolations. It seems to me the data pool is too small to be dogmatic either way. Also Jesus did not teach break the law for life, He said if properly understood, the law allows for these actions I am taking. I am not certain about your extrapolations but I am certain of the error in your theology. I don’t disagree with precautions but setting aside constitutional liberties is a bad direction to go.
Lois Tverberg says
Rodney, I’m not just extrapolating by guessing. I’m pointing out how fast the numbers have been rising in other countries, and that the pattern is being seen around the world. In any location where a few dozen cases are reported, within two weeks there will be a thousand cases – this is what is happening everywhere. I would love it if 13,000 is too high, but likely it won’t be.
Regarding the “errors in my theology”: I actually agree with you that Jesus was interpreting the law, not breaking the law. See p 139-141 in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus.
Patty S Johnson says
Thank you so much for sharing this and for your common sense approach. Prior to receiving and reading your article, I had listened to a podcast by Michael Osterholm and shared with family and friends. Again, thank you!
Willis and Brenda Britt says
Thanks, Lois, for this counsel!! It was great to hear your teaching in McComb, MS.
Dawn.V. Lawrence says
Thank you and Praise the Lord for your wise teaching at this crucial time in history ( His Story )
Dawn Lawrence N.N.E.B. R.S.H. S.R.N. S.C.M. Speciald in S.C.B.U and Hospice care.
20 yrs working as a vicars wife.
43 yrs ” helping ” in Israel the last 25yrs being spent intermittently at the Home for Bible Translation.
Now copeping with recently diagnosed Parkinson’s Disease and Bi-polar Affective Disorder..