The infection and spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global pandemic. This development brings to attention the need to examine the meaning of the term “pandemic,” its historical trajectory in the world, and how Christians have dealt with it - both in the past and present. Pandemic is classically defined as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people” (Kelly 2011).
The above definition of the term “pandemic” gives us much insight into the fact that the novel coronavirus is indeed a global pandemic of our day. The mass hysteria, uncertainties, and anxieties caused by this pandemic appear to be a litmus test of the faith and conduct of contemporary Christianity because this is the first time, we are recording a pandemic of this nature in recent times affecting many countries across the globe. Although HIV/AIDS is also a pandemic, the way of contracting it is different from that of the COVID-19.
It is, therefore, the focus of this article as a matter of public interest to examine the historical trajectory of how Christians responded to some pandemics or plagues in the past. I will attempt to juxtapose the findings with our understanding of the coronavirus pandemic and the way we should conduct ourselves in combating the disease.
Historical Perspective of Global Pandemics
While this article does not intend to catalogue all the pandemics in history, a few of them have been listed for our reflection. Pandemics have destroyed millions of lives across the globe so the declaration of COVID-19 by WHO as a pandemic should be an issue of grave concern of every person. For example, in a data released by the World Economic Forum (2020), the Antonine Plague (165 - 180) killed five million people, Plague of Justinian (541 – 542) killed between 30 and 50 million while the Black Death or Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1351) killed 200 million of the world’s population at the time. The small pox disease in 1520 killed 56 million people while it is indicated that HIV/AIDS disease that began in 1981 has also killed between 25 and 35 million people and still counting.
One of the most dangerous pandemics in the twentieth century was the Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919) which ruined many cities in the world with a death toll between 40 and 50 million. Some scholars have even stated that the death toll of this pandemic was about 100 million people. Apart from some of these major pandemics, there were others such as The Seventeenth Century Great Plagues (1600) with a death toll of three million, Cholera Three Outbreak (1852 - 1860) which killed one million, Cholera Six Outbreak (1817 - 1923) with a death toll of 800,000, and The Third Plague (1855) which killed 12 million people.
According to Patterson (1983:485-502), the Gold Coast also had its share of a very high death toll caused by the global influenza epidemic or Spanish Flu in 1918-19. Patterson indicates that within six months, the pandemic had killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people in the Gold Coast. The impact of this lethal disease was so serious that 2.4 million Africans lost their lives; nearly two percent of Africa’s population at the time. Out of this number, 2.2 million deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa (Phillips 2014). Why is this information necessary to us today? It is just to inform us of how serious global pandemics can be in the African continent, just as the other continents of the world, so that we can take every necessary precautions against the spread of COVID-19 as we pray to the Lord to avert any further catastrophe that the disease intends to unleash to the world.
In more recent times, there have been some pandemics such as the Asian Flu (1956 - 1958) with a death toll of two million, and the Hong Kong Flu (1968 - 1970) which also killed One million people. The world has also recorded other pandemics such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - SARS (2002 - 2003), Swine Flu (2009 - 2010), and Ebola (2014 - 2016) which killed 770; 200,000, and 11,300 people respectively (World Economic Forum, 2020).
These are not an exhaustive list of pandemics and plagues that ravaged lives in the world. One particular situation that ought to be identified with all these pandemics is the long period some of them took to subside. The least was one year, but very devastating. This should make us intensify our effort and prayer meant to control the rapid spread of the COVID-19 because it may have the potential of being active for a longer period. Thus, as a global pandemic, COVID-19 is not something to be underestimated.
It can be seen from the devastations of the above-listed pandemics that in such situations, every person may be a potential victim, irrespective of one’s geographical location or social background. The novel coronavirus is a pandemic because it could not be contained within a particular geographical area but travels across frontiers to unleash terror against people both far and near.
Today some people boast of the advancement of technology and the excessive knowledge of humanity to be able to deal with every situation that confronts us. However, little did they envisage that the ancient phenomenon of global pandemic could resurface to cause havoc to the peace and stability of the world. Till now, there is no vaccine or medication to cure COVID-19. Sadly, world leaders and scientists have all been brought to their knees by the threats of COVID-19. They have not been able to assure the world of a specific timeline that the disease will be completely eradicated for lives and businesses to return to normalcy. This is how vulnerable we are as humans!
In fact, the effect of COVID-19 has been obvious with no segment of society left unaffected, including religious activities, businesses, education, travel, tourism, and the general social lives of people. The world appears to be experiencing a lockdown. While some countries are already experiencing serious humanitarian crises, others are totally confused and bracing themselves up for the worse situation to happen in the days ahead. In the midst of this hopelessness and the fear that has stalked society, in which way can the church also provide leadership? If the world is in a lockdown, are the mercies and love of God too locked down? Absolutely No!
What did the Church do in the Past?
It is appropriate to draw inferences from how our past Christian compatriots conducted themselves when they were hit by plagues and pandemics so that we can relate it to our response to COVID-19. In the past, Christians stood very strong in pandemic situations to the extent that the church continued to grow and we shall take one example for our case study.
In 250 AD, the Roman Empire was ravaged by a plague known as, The Plague of Cyprian (249–262 AD) which was so dangerous that it could kill about 5,000 people a day in Rome. During the plague, Saint Cyprian (ca. 200 – 258 AD) of Carthage preached to the Christian community to overcome the terror of death caused by the pandemic and demonstrate their Christian virtues and benevolence. The response of Christians in that situation culminated in church growth, despite the fact that the church was also affected by the plague.
Dionysius (ca. 200 – 265 AD), the bishop of Alexandria admonished believers at the time to be very strong with their faith and minister the love and mercy of Christ to people in the face of the crisis, “May we—with our own pandemic—live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world.” He testified about the Christians, thus, “heedless of the dangers, took charge of the sick, attending to their every need” (Stone 2020).
To put their Christian values and Kingdom Principles into practice, Christians at the time braced themselves up in the face of the plague and attended to the sick and provided care for the destitute. While non-Christians were hopeless and helpless as they ran away from their sick relatives and friends, Christians showed the love and mercy of Christ.
Their kind gestures and heroic demonstration of faith combined with virtues won the admiration of many people (including those perceived to be their enemies) resulting in their massive conversion to Christianity. In times of crisis the Good News about Christ must be the hope of everyone as the past Christians did.
What can we also do to help people in need in our present situation of COVID-19? Are we to deny people of our support for fear of being infected with the disease or we will extend the love of Christ to society in these trying times of our faith? Obviously, now we have health professionals who have been well-trained to handle COVID-19 patients so there is the need for us to abide strictly by all the health and medical experts’ advice about the disease. The point, however, is how can we be of help to society as Christians in the face of our present situation?
Are we ready to open our homes for home cell and Bible study programmes as a response to Jesus’ statement that “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst”? (Matt. 18:20 cf. Heb. 10:25). The fact is that our times are different from that of the past, but there is still something we can also do today to put our faith into practice.
The closure of businesses and lockdowns of many people at their various homes to stop the spread of the disease may make life difficult for the poor and needy in society. Are we ready to share some foodstuffs with them, particularly our neighbours or colleagues who may run out of food and other basic needs of life? In which way can we express the true love of Christ to other people in these desperate times, particularly to provide a social safety net for the poor and the needy? What about the assistance that can help health professionals, particularly those under resourced to deliver their services efficiently? It should be noted that the author does not intend to suggest everything that ought to be done as Christians in the face of COVID-19, but let us reflect on them to identify the best response in our local context.
A Pragmatic Approach towards COVID-19
Relative to the situation of COVID-19, various positive responses have been identified in the church – the universal Christian fraternity. Among many of them are the words of encouragement from eminent people of God such as Saint Cyprian and Bishop Dionysius as quoted above. Apostle Eric Kwabena Nyamekye in his circular letter in March 2020 to The Church of Pentecost (CoP) writes, “As you may be aware, the [World Health Organization] WHO has declared the coronavirus a pandemic; that is, it has become a global challenge. But we believe that in times like this we need not live in fear and panic or spread anxiety.” Apostle Nyamekye urged Christians to draw strength from Psalm 91:5, 6, “You will not fear the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in darkness, or the pestilence that ravages at noon” (HCSB).
The Chairman of CoP has also asked Christians to cooperate with the (or their) government (s) regarding precautionary measures put in place to combat the spread of the disease. This is very important because as a global pandemic, COVID-19 has spread to every continent. The infection rate may go very high if we refuse to be precautious. Thus, while there is the need for Christians to worship God as well as caring for others, they are to be precautious. It is good to reflect on Paul’s admonishing in Ephesians 5:15, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise” (ESV). Vigilance and attitudinal change in terms of hygiene and sanitation is crucial in this regard. There is also the need to remain cautious by avoiding anything or place that have the potential to infect us with this lethal
virus. It, therefore, ought to be reiterated that fundamental etiquettes on hygiene and sanitation should be crucial for the pragmatic measures in responding to COVID-19.
Another pragmatic approach adopted by the church today is the use of electronic media for worship, particularly social media, television, and radio. This approach is very significant at a time that large gatherings in church buildings are restricted as part of the measures adopted to control the spread of COVID-19. This method is in a sharp contrast to the past practices during which technological advancement to facilitate communication of the gospel was very low when compared to the present. As a result, various religious leaders today have urged their followers to use the electronic media in propagating the gospel. In addition to the propagation of the gospel, there is the need for Christians to help educate people on expert advice about COVID-19. Not all our people are well-informed of the current situation and have the capacity to handle the challenges associated with it; so, we have the responsibility in educating them.
Today, cities are in a lockdown, businesses are shutdown, gates to people’s houses are closed, and the streets are empty. It has been realised that these are part of measures put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19, but one thing should be reiterated; the grace, love, mercy, and God’s protection are not in a lockdown. Each of them is very active and that is enough to compel Christians to propagate the gospel in times like these.
Christians must also step up their fellowship with God and have faith in Him for the fact that He will protect and resource us to overcome the threats of COVID-19. This is not the time to feed on speculations or spread fear and panic. It is rather the time of putting faith into practice for the world to see that the only hope left is the salvation of Christ. Thus, in situations like this, prayer, study of God’s Word, personal devotional life, total dependence on God’s grace, and witnessing the gospel to others in need of Christ are vital in the individual Christian’s life. We should not lose faith in the Lord as we take consolation from Paul’s statement in Romans 8:35-39, which indicates that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Surely, we shall overcome the coronavirus pandemic as it happened in history of Christianity. We must, however, ensure that all directives from experts, authorities, and the leadership of our churches are obeyed. “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Lk. 1:37, KJV).
Kelly H 2011. The Classical Definition of Pandemic is not Elusive. Accessed from
Patterson D 1983. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. xvi (ii). Accessed from
Phillips H 2014. Influenza Pandemic (Africa). Accessed from
Stone L 2020. Christianity has been Handling Pandemics for 2000 Years. Accessed from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-
The Church of Pentecost, General Headquarters. 2020. Circular Letter: COP/CO/VOL.38/0113/20.
World Economic Forum. 2020. A Visual History of Pandemics. Accessed from
Author: Vincent Anane Denteh © 2020
Email: [email protected]
Source: By Vincent Anane Denteh (Rev.)
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