Silvio and I had become fast friends. It seemed we’d known each other much longer than the few months I’d lived as a guest in his family’s home in Nicaragua. We were the same age. We both liked U2. We could discuss politics and theology for hours at a time, although my imperfect Spanish sometimes slowed us down.
As I sat beside Silvio’s hospital bed in late 2005, one U2 lyric kept running through my head:
Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die.
But in Nicaragua, as in many other parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, people frequently die of diseases they’d survive if they were in the United States, Canada, or Europe.
There’s no way to know with certainty if Silvio would have survived his leukemia in the United States, but short of a miracle, he had almost no possibility of survival in Nicaragua. The prescribed chemotherapy drugs weren’t available there, and there was no possibility of a bone-marrow transplant without traveling abroad. My friend died at 22.
Inequalities of Global Health
As the novel coronavirus—which has already caused more than 200,000 deaths in Europe and North America—begins to spread to regions with far less health-care infrastructure, the death toll is likely to rise dramatically. In the United States, the availability of mechanical ventilators has become a limiting factor in some cases; in parts of Africa where my World Relief colleagues work, there is not even oxygen. In sub-Saharan Africa, which is still facing AIDS, Ebola, malaria, and tuberculosis, there are just 0.2 doctors per 1,000 people; the United States has roughly 13-times as many doctors per capita.
Further, the economic consequences of efforts to slow the disease’s spread—as devastating as they are in the United States—will be all the more severe in parts of the world where many are already living on less than $2 per day, and where governments lack the resources to cut a $1,200 check to their citizens. Though social distancing may be the best public-health strategy, it is simply not an option for many of the world’s poor, who might literally starve if forced to stay home and not work.
For American Christians, these stark global-health inequalities should be of concern because of our belief that each human person is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and thus endowed by God with inherent dignity. Jesus makes clear in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) that the “neighbor” we’re commanded to love is to be defined broadly; it’s not limited to those who share our nationality or religion.
Yet the fact that regions poised to be hardest hit—such as Africa and Latin America—are also now the most Christian regions of the world gives North American Christians an additional impetus for concern. According to Gordon-Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, fully half of global Christians now reside in Africa or Latin America, compared to just 11 percent in North America. These are our brothers and sisters, with whom we share one faith and one baptism as part of the eternal body (Eph. 4:4–5). And we are commanded to “do good to everyone, especially to those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Pray and Act
We ought to fervently pray, but our prayers should also be paired with action: it is not enough to wish they “be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body (James 2:16).
Fortunately, there are ways that African and Latin American churches can mitigate the spread of disease. They can educate their congregations and their broader communities on public-health best practices, like handwashing and limiting physical contact. And they can help to respond to the pandemic’s effects, medically and economically, when it does spread.
Shortly before such travel became impossible, I visited a rural church near Kajiado, Kenya, where pastors and lay leaders of various denominations—Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and more—work together to care for the most vulnerable in their communities in the name of Jesus. Similar Church Empowerment Zones have proven an effective model of mobilizing churches to both address harmful cultural beliefs with biblical clarity and also prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. Now, these networks of local churches are mobilizing to respond to COVID-19. But time is running short, and they need the support of the global church.
In a moment when many U.S. churches are facing unprecedented challenges—learning how to remain the church while unable to physically gather, balancing church budgets while members’ incomes have declined or disappeared—it can be difficult to turn our attention elsewhere. But that’s precisely what the apostle Paul urged the believers in Corinth to do, giving of their relative “abundance” to care for the more vulnerable church in Jerusalem, “that there may be fairness” (2 Cor. 8:14). Given the stark infrastructural variance between North America and Africa, equality is far off; but Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian church speaks to the U.S. church today. May we emulate both the Macedonian churches who gave “beyond their means” (2 Cor. 8:3) despite their “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2), and ultimately follow the model of Jesus, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Grace, Not Guilt
Paul’s intention, he makes clear, is not to guilt the Corinthian believers into giving (2 Cor. 8:8), but to invite them to “excel in this act of grace” (2 Cor. 8:7)—an act that’s ultimately for God’s glory and their benefit (2 Cor. 9:10–13). Indeed, when the church cares generously for the distressed, it produces praise among those helped (2 Cor. 9:11) and captures the attention of unbelievers, who “may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:12).
If the global church stands sacrificially with those likely to be most ravaged by COVID-19, the ultimate effect will not just be lives sustained temporarily. Our obedient action will testify of God’s love to a watching world, and many may be drawn to put their faith in Christ, who offers endless life no virus can steal.
My friend Silvio knew that, and the reality of Christ’s resurrection means that Silvio’s body too will be resurrected, cancer-free. As COVID-19 spreads to the most medically vulnerable corners of our world, I pray that many lives will be saved—both now and also for eternity—as the church stands with the most vulnerable.