THE dominance of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 in the news should not be a surprise. The doom-hungry nature of most newsrooms has, for once, been matched by an eager audience. Like adverse weather, an epidemic has the potential to harm everyone. Fear of it triggers an involuntary feeling of vulnerability. The possibility of contracting the disease from someone yet to display any symptoms has produced a reaction close to panic in some quarters. Every cough or sneeze in the workplace, on public transport, or at school — and this is the season of coughs and sneezes — is perceived as a potentially fatal threat. At the time of writing, the confirmed cases in the UK remain in double figures. But appeals to keep a sense of proportion are unlikely to succeed, since they assume that the public can behave rationally about something as visceral as fear.
The writer of the First Epistle General of John taught that perfect love casts out fear. What, then, does perfect love look like in this situation? First, the love needed to fight the virus is communal. Although self-isolation is an individual act, it should be recognised by neighbours and colleagues as an act of sacrificial love for the community. Communication is key, so that the health-care system and friends can monitor the well-being of someone who withdraws from public gaze. There is no knowing whether the UK will need to impose the sort of restrictions on travel seen in China, Italy, and elsewhere, but any large-scale outbreak will make great demands on neighbourly love. Second, this love will be manifested in honesty. There are many reasons that governments might be reticent about the spread of the virus. The more autocratic, such as China and Iran, have found it hard to acknowledge their powerlessness, admit to their mistakes, or, breaking with their usual habit, trust their populations with unadulterated truth. Other governments will wish to avoid the short-term economic chaos that a serious outbreak might bring. But ignorance is a prime driver of fear, as is impotence. Were a serious outbreak to occur, clear information about what people should do, both to protect themselves and to help others, is the way to prompt the best response.
Finally, there must be mercy. People may behave with the utmost caution and responsibility and yet still pass on the virus unwittingly. The commonest face masks are acknowledged to be poor barriers to the spread of disease. There are already people — supercarriers or merely carriers — who have caused the death of others through infection. Their guilt is no greater than that of anyone in the population at large. Humans, like all other mammals, have for ever been used as walking Petri dishes by viruses and bacteria. Evolutionally, however, we were not expected to fly, carrying viruses around the globe in hours. Cutting down on international travel could be a kindness to humanity in more ways than one.