The spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID—19)1 across the world and throughout our communities leads many people to ask why a good God would allow such things. I’m often asked variants of this question in interviews and discussions about COVID and other human viruses.
One of the most important things I can say on this topic is that pandemics like COVID can be prevented and avoided. I think when we realize this, it helps us put things like COVID into proper perspective, one that acknowledges that life is filled with challenges and potential adversities that require us to act wisely and with integrity.
Lessons from Nature
Nature’s beauty and power are awe-inspiring. Giant waterfalls cascade powerfully onto rocks—creating great visual and sensory feasts of thundering water spray, turbulent vibrations, brilliant rainbows, and cool, damp, refreshing breaths. However, most people know that throwing oneself into the falls will not increase the pleasurable sensations but will result in great harm; so will throwing someone else into the falls.
A hungry lion hunting its prey is also majestic in a sense. Again, most people know that approaching the same majestic cat in the wild will almost certainly result in fatality—and not for the cat. Most people also know that tossing someone else into a pit of hungry lions will almost certainly end poorly for that person. So how can I draw a parallel between SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and these types of natural risks?
People who are aware of and follow viral outbreaks and trends in antibiotic resistant diseases likely know that many diseases emerge from mismanagement of wildlife and domestic animals. Proper management provides that those who want can observe wild animals in zoos or nature refuges that are habitats crafted and provided for their captive or natural flourishing and for our amazement. Through proper management we may also exercise capabilities to farm domestic animals in open ranges and humane ways. Yet, on a global scale, we continue to allow various dangerous practices of impoverished care for these creatures to persist, often for the sake of monetary gain and means of convenience. Such mismanagement indicates how those who could take moderate, slightly self-sacrificing actions for the sake of creation care fail to do so.
Humans trap wild animals, sometimes farming them on larger scales, for transport and sale in large (live-animal or wet) markets.2 In these markets wild and domesticated animals and humans comingle in close, crowded, unsanitary conditions. These markets are breeding grounds for pandemics. As a result, viruses that would rarely, if ever, make species jumps into the human population find a route to do so when animals that would never normally come in contact with one another are forced into close proximity.
Seventeen years ago, SARS-CoV made just such a leap. Although no one saw it coming or saw it happen, viral sequences and immunological evidence indicate the path it followed.3 The virus originated in bats. At some point infected bats came in contact with live weasel-like animals called civet cats (civets, for short; or possibly other animals too, such as raccoon dogs). This contact fostered the jump of one of hundreds of known viruses that infect bats4 (in this case a coronavirus) into this intermediate host. From civets, SARS-CoV made the jump into humans. This jump triggered eventual transmission of SARS-CoV to over 8,000 people (via human-to-human spread) in 27 countries. Just under 800 people died as a result of infection from severe acute respiratory distress, a very severe form of pneumonia.5
Seventeen years later, SARS-CoV-2 has spread much faster, farther and wider than the original SARS-CoV. As of April 1, 2020, over 180 countries have reported cases of sustained human-to-human spread. Tragically, this second virus also originated in bats and jumped into humans, either directly or through an intermediate, as yet unidentified, host (perhaps a farmed, wild, or domesticated animal). Studies and reports indicate that cats (house cats, lions, and tigers) and ferrets are susceptible hosts.7 It’s not certain if they can pass it to humans, but they can become sick and shed the virus, so transmission to humans is a reasonable expectation. Possibly one of these or another animal served as a stepping-stone for the virus to enter the human population.
International scientists have not yet determined the path it took from bats to humans. But we know it originated in nature.8 To determine where it came from scientists need analyses similar to what’s needed to get recovered people back to work safely—antibody (or serological) testing. As with humans, animals can be tested to see if they’ve had the virus by looking for antibodies circulating in their blood. Thankfully antibody tests should be available in the US soon. (They’ve been available in Singapore since late February.)
“These [blood serum] antibody tests are detecting a person’s immune response to [SARS-CoV-2]. It takes, in some cases, 10 to 11 days for a person to mount an immune response and produce these antibodies. . .”9
—Elitza Theel, director of the Mayo Clinic lab developing COVID-19 antibody tests
Preventing Future Pandemics
These stepping-stones from bats to humans can be disrupted and displaced. For nearly 20 years we’ve known bats harbor SARS-like viruses. Bats also harbor many other kinds of viruses associated with human diseases (e.g. Nipah, Hendra, Ebola, etc.).10 We’ve also known civets are intermediates for potentially fatal viral transmissions to humans. Yet, bats and civets are regular commodities in some exotic animal markets.
Without human mismanagement of known risks, such species leaps would be as likely as finding a specific tiny pebble on the terrain of Pike’s Peak. Collectively, we possess the knowledge to manage risks. Plus, we’ve had small-scale warnings from early encounters with SARS-CoV (in 2003) and another coronavirus MERS-CoV (since 2012). This leaves one pondering: who’s to blame? It’s certainly a questionable leap to impugn the goodness of the Creator who has gifted us with a lavish creation and who invites and entrusts us to steward and care for it for the flourishing of all life.
The vast majority of viruses in nature contribute to ecological balance that makes all life possible. The vast majority are not associated with any disease or suffering. It is possible that the many viruses in bats might serve critical ecological functions as well. But like waterfalls and hungry lions, we all need to respect and admire nature from afar. This requires a sense of our own human limitations and shortcomings.
It’s not ignorance of the risks that has led to this current crisis. It is a failure to mitigate risk and care for creation as God would have us care. It’s a case of our abusing the good gifts God has entrusted to us. While some who suffered may not have been aware of the risks that led to this crisis, we now have another opportunity to make lasting changes that will save lives in the future. By acting on what we know of the hazards posed, we can exercise care for creation as co-regents made in the image of God, thereby fulfilling our mandate to steward creation for the benefit of all.