Daniel Chin is a physician trained in pulmonary and critical care medicine and epidemiology with 25 years of global public health experience. In 2003, he led much of WHO’s support to China to contain the SARS epidemic.
As I write this, my heart is very heavy. I just spent the second Sunday morning of Lent in my living room with my wife, watching a livestream of the worship service from my church. The church was empty because this past Friday, the King County Public Health Department in Washington state sent a notice to faith-based organizations, recommending that they cancel all gatherings with 50 or more people. Pretty much all churches in the Seattle area have already stopped their in-person worship services along with most other church activities. Since the evangelical church that I attend has over 1,500 worshipers in four services each Sunday, we livestreamed our worship services. As this article was being prepared for publication, Gov. Jay Inslee took it further, banning gatherings larger than 250 people in three metro counties, and WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
But my heart is not heavy because I could not gather with others to worship (as much as I appreciate corporate worship). It is heavy because I can see where the COVID-19 epidemic is going to take us, while most of those in our society and churches do not. Seventeen years ago, I was working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Beijing when the SARS coronavirus epidemic broke out in China. I was thrust into leading much of WHO’s support to China and worked 24/7 for over three months to help contain that epidemic. I saw firsthand the effects of SARS on the people of China, the extraordinary social distancing efforts undertaken by the government, and the cost that the society paid to contain that epidemic.
After working for WHO and then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in China, my wife and I moved to Seattle in 2015 to lead the foundation’s work to control tuberculosis in several countries. For a quarter of a century, I’ve answered a calling as a follower of Christ to stop the spread of diseases and work to eliminate them, and now I heed that calling to speak to my brothers and sisters in Christ to take this epidemic seriously and respond.
When COVID-19 first surfaced publicly in China in January, this was not an issue for most churches in the Seattle area. But it generated a lot of anxieties among local Chinese churches because Chinese Spring Festival was happening and their members were going to and coming from China. Church members were extremely concerned about being infected by a traveler from China, and the number of Sunday worshipers declined by half. The leadership of a large majority–ethnic Chinese evangelical church asked me to help guide their church’s local response. Subsequently, the large American evangelical church I attend, which draws congregants from a wide geographic base, made the same request, along with a smaller neighborhood church deeply engaged in its local community through service programs like Scouts, childcare, and youth work.
From working with these churches, each with diverse approaches to kingdom engagement, I learned that a robust church response requires a proper understanding of how COVID-19 spreads and harms, how to protect ourselves and others from being infected, and how to properly assess the risks we face in our communities.