Dieudonné Lemfuka harbors no illusions about human strength in the face of pandemics. The surgeon spent a month in quarantine in 2014 after combatting Liberia’s Ebola outbreak at the ELWA (short for Eternal Love Winning Africa) hospital in Monrovia. “The best way to pray,” he said, “is to ask the Lord, if possible, to stop this disease.”
Prayer is probably as much as most of us ever do—if we manage to do anything—in response to news of plagues and disasters on distant shores. But it’s notable, now that a plague has encroached upon our home turf, that even Western Christians have criticized prayer as an inadequate response to the crisis on its own. “Overwhelmingly, I think the groups I work with would say ‘pray and work’” to solve the problem, pastor and Southeastern University theology professor Chris Green told the Associated Press in March.
We’ve been inundated with messages about what that work looks like domestically—no Google search or news binge is complete without a pop-up PSA to “Do the five.” Compulsive hand washing, keeping distance, and worshiping to stuttering video feeds no longer require imagination. Envisioning how to halt COVID-19 overseas is a fuzzier effort.
Volunteering for medical trips probably isn’t the answer, at least not for now. The usual countries that send medical teams are so desperate for personnel at home that they are pleading with retired health care workers to volunteer locally. For the foreseeable future, attempting international travel will require navigating a bramble of restrictions, exposure to crowds where the virus could be lurking, and potential quarantines. And if already struggling hospitals are pushed to the brink, they will not have resources to host hordes of foreign volunteers.
Lemfuka will tell you—as will other global-health workers in the US and abroad—that money and resources are critical. Everyone interviewed for this story expressed extreme concern about shortages of personal protective equipment for medical workers and intensive-care equipment for patients. As supply chains tighten upstream in wealthy countries, they dry to dust in places like Liberia. Lemfuka sees this as a planet-size opportunity to show the love of Christ. “But how do we show that without supplies?” he asked.
If they can get it. Fundraising for public health overseas is an uphill climb, even in cheery times. If it were easier, preventable diseases like tuberculosis, which is projected to kill more than 10 million people in the next decade, would already be gone. Experts estimate that disease could be eradicated for a cool $65 billion—small potatoes when stacked against the more than $2 trillion the US government is spending to stimulate its economy during the COVID-19 downturn.
The church is unlikely to marshal such resources (although Rotary International, surely a less formidable entity than the global bride of Christ, has raised nearly $2 billion and has led the world to the cusp of eradicating polio). And leaders in the developing world are not naive—they know many of their cries for help will be lost amid the roar of appeals as the usual “donor nations” tend to their own needs first.
In the West African Ebola outbreak that Sacra endured, “it was just these three countries [affected],” he said. “We had whole containers of protective gear getting sent our way.” He doesn’t expect that kind of help with COVID-19.
Which raises questions: Would it be fair for doctors to expect such help from Christian strangers around the world? Humans are finite; we can only juggle so many cares at a time. Just how much are we obligated to help others when we need help ourselves? Jesus praised the widow for giving her mites. But would he have asked her for them?
James Thobaben is a medical ethicist and theologian at Asbury Theological Seminary. He juggles lofty questions about public health with his own more personal concerns—like whether his daughter, a physician at a St. Louis hospital, is safe. He understands scholarly ideals like utilitarianism, helping as many people as possible even if a few have to sacrifice. But he also has strong words for anyone who would send health care workers, like his daughter, into harm’s way without adequate protective equipment. “It is morally wrong,” he insists.
He referenced 1 Timothy 5:8: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This, Thobaben explained, grounds the obligations Christians have to the world: “One has a higher duty to one’s nuclear, and perhaps extended, family than to an otherwise unknown stranger. The same higher degree of duty applies to the visible church.”
It’s true, Thobaben said, that, theologically, everyone in the world is the Christian’s neighbor: a brother or sister in Christ or a victim on life’s Jericho Road. But effectiveness matters when we help others, and we are generally most effective at helping those most proximate to us.
Thobaben added a caveat: Christians are also a people on mission. That means we are always expanding the circle of people we consider close. “If I do not help at least some outside my immediate community, I fail to reach out with the gospel,” he said. “Part of the prudential obligation of a Christian is to decide how to use or even use up what one has when there is not enough to go around.”
In our globally connected age, humans—and Christians in particular—have flaunted our ability to stretch the definition of “neighbor” as far as an internet connection or a Boeing 787 will carry it. One takeaway of the COVID-19 crisis so far is that our boasting rings hollow. We clearly still react most strongly to events in our own backyard, and it’s very possible the pandemic will push the world inward to a new, self-centric era.
But proximity is both geographic and relational. Perhaps our shared experiences with this virus—rich nations and poor nations—will bring us all a little closer once we’ve emerged from the haze of self-isolation. Perhaps the next time we hear of some faceless people group out in the world suffering from an invisible, enigmatic predator, those people won’t be so faceless after all, because we’ll see ourselves in them.
For his part, as he bides time at home with his family in Charleston, Michael O’Neal sure hopes that can happen—at least in time for OneWorld Health’s next golf tournament, which he’s rescheduled for October. “Be compassionate,” he said. “Remember what it was like.”