I’m recovering from a Covid infection as I write. It’s been a mild one, like a dry flu, and for this I feel grateful for the vaccinations I received back in the summer. Even before contracting Covid-19, I was planning to write about the biological aspect of this epidemic – but now I can do it in the first person!
Viruses are strange things. Perhaps ten days ago, I must have breathed in a cloud of tiny protein specks, a tenth of a micron across, that settled on some inner surfaces of my nose or throat, fused with cells there, and released ever tinier strands of RNA that my cells treated as their own: that is, they faithfully translated the viral genetic molecules into vast numbers of coronavirus proteins that fused together into new particles and slipped back out, quickly infecting more cells afterwards. As this cycle must have repeated itself many thousands of times, eventually I started to notice, first with a headache and then when I woke up one morning with cold-like symptoms. I’ve seen one estimate  that the total mass of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in the world is probably no more than a kilogram, with each infected person holding less than 0.1 mg comprising 1010 particles – and yet that intrusive protein dust washing around my body certainly made itself felt.
Then there’s a story to tell about how my immune system sprang into action – quickened, presumably, by its previous exposure to the vaccine proteins. That story is too complicated for me to try and get right, but it seems that a battle of attrition goes on, and thankfully in my case, that battle seems to be now in its mopping-up stage. The first time I heard about the immune system was when I was eight or nine, and I remember my teacher finishing her simplified account with the reassurance, “But in the end, your body will always win.” For my class’s age group she was, of course, largely right, but I’m aware that tragically this isn’t true in general. Deaths from Covid-19 are thought to be well over 5 million globally so far (according to Johns Hopkins University data), and strongly increasing with age, although there have been deaths in all age groups.
It would be easy to end here by celebrating the immune system as evidence of our loving Creator’s wise design of human biology, the vaccines as the fruit of human science and industry using God-given abilities, and in general God’s common grace all round. But I think that would be tantamount to keeping God out of the picture. What about the existence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and more deadly ones in the first place? What about the lack of much distinctive Christian presence in this pandemic (as far as I’m aware)? What about all the loved ones lost before their time?
I think we have to recognise that viruses are one potential type of thing that can crop up in God’s good creation. They aren’t living beings, rather rogue bits of organisms: ‘selfish’ genetic material running wild. The analogy of fallen angels comes to mind: it’s difficult to think of viruses as fulfilling any part of God’s word for creation, in the way that electrons, atoms, compounds, stars, planets, rocks, plants and animals seem to. Viruses are intimately biological, in a sense, without being alive. We surely have to acknowledge that God’s creation runs on laws that create many rich and varied possibilities, not all of which fit God’s purposes – and of which viruses may be one. Human evil is very often implicated in realising these bad possibilities – and indeed, most hypotheses about how Covid-19 originated seem to point to some kind of poor practice regarding animals or laboratories. Be that as it may, without the Fall, I assume we would not have severe viral diseases, and surely not in the age to come.
In our present age, meanwhile, we must avoid and alleviate disease and death as best we can. This means directing our energies to good diet, health and hygiene, wellbeing, communication, social support, economy, justice, care and love: all kinds of virtue that make up love of God, of our neighbour and of ourselves. Those who are called to healthcare, medical research, public health policy and government at all levels have special callings in this regard. May we be spared another pandemic like this one, but even more, may we be faithful in our callings before our Creator as we pray for the return of our Redeemer. Come, Lord Jesus, and especially rescue those who suffer!