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Traveling Amidst Masses of Masks

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How many people understand the significance of this modern plague in light of Bible prophecy? Follow one Evangelist's experience traveling ahead of the COVID-19 crisis.


Dear Tomorrow’s World Reader: I began composing the article below in February while sitting in an airport in Thailand during a long-planned trip around the world to visit our churches and ministry—a trip taken at a time when COVID-19 was gradually spreading out from the Chinese town of Wuhan and when the impact and magnitude of the crisis was not yet understood. Even then, an eerie atmosphere prevailed, and in the large crowds of people massed closely together in airports, many wore protective masks. Looking back at what I wrote just a few months ago, I marvel at how much has changed in our world—and how quickly. While some of the comments below may seem dated, given how fresh the situation was at the time I wrote them down, I still want to share these firsthand observations with you, along with the meditations they inspired. An update follows at the end of the article.

My trip was planned months ago, and little did I know then that I would be sitting in the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, as I am right now, writing about this subject. I came here to spend a few days meeting with Tomorrow’s World associates from eight Asian countries and to see firsthand the work of our foundation here. The first stop of my itinerary was a visit to our office in Canada for the better part of a week to record four Tomorrow’s World telecasts for our Canadian audience, then traveling to Manila in the Philippines to give a Tomorrow’s World presentation and meet with associates there.

I never imagined while the trip was being planned that I would be surrounded by throngs of concerned travelers who clearly have one thing on their minds: an invisible threat spreading around the world from Wuhan, China. Virtually all airport workers around me—custodians, ticket agents, restaurant staff—are wearing masks of all sorts. Manufacturers have capitalized on the crisis by offering a variety of masks such as most of us have never seen before. And, frankly, I donned one myself, along with many other Westerners, while standing in crowded airport lines—if for no other reason than to satisfy my wife waiting for me back home and all the others concerned about my health.

Handwashing, alcohol wipes, and other forms of disinfectant are everywhere—but how can you fully avoid contamination from an invisible virus that may be lurking on any surface you touch? While I’m not overly concerned, the truth is that anyone sitting in a crowded plane, train, or bus anywhere in Asia has the coronavirus on his mind, knowing that there is at least a small chance of encountering this life-threatening bug.

Of course, the challenge isn’t just in Asia. I notice you cannot board aircraft traveling to a variety of different countries if you were recently in China, Macau, Taiwan, or Hong Kong at any time in the last 14 days. Staff are handing us new declaration forms to help screen passengers. Hotels, malls, and other public places check your temperature before allowing you in. (Note: After leaving Thailand, where I wrote most of this article, we could not disembark from our aircraft in South Africa until every single passenger had undergone a temperature scan. Even Lesotho—a landlocked country bordered on all sides by South Africa—requires a temperature scan before allowing anyone to enter. All these are prudent measures that demonstrate the concern of authorities all around the world.)

Sitting here in this airport, I wonder: What if COVID-19 turns into a pandemic such as the world experienced in 1918, when 25 to 50 million people perished from what has been called the Spanish flu? Is COVID-19 really that serious? Or are these steps an exercise in (pardon the pun) overkill? Is this fear justified?

I have to say that seeing firsthand the global effects of the coronavirus has been enlightening. Whether this turns out to be a worldwide pandemic or an inconvenient false alarm will likely be known by the time you read this article. I hope it will be the latter.

The Economic Impact and Our Tragic Ignorance

In addition to fear spreading throughout Asia and elsewhere, it may be that COVID-19’s greatest legacy will be its impact on the world economy. Understandable fear is shutting down travel and tourism, affecting the personal lives of millions and hinting at a greater financial crisis to come. You can see it in the numbers of cancelled flights, especially for those coming in and out of Shanghai, Wuhan, and Beijing. You can see it at tourist locations, where anticipated vacationers are not showing up. Tourists at the Grand Palace in Bangkok are few in number compared to those who flock there during a normal day. The Chinese New Year normally brings thousands of people to Phuket, but not this year, impacting private and corporate lodging and all that is associated with a tourist town. Similar situations are spread across the region.

And it is clear that the effects of this virus will extend far beyond Asia, and that a coronavirus pandemic being declared is all but inevitable at this point. My wife and I were planning to take an Alaskan cruise in celebration of our 50 years of marriage, but who wants to chance being locked up in a germ factory for who knows how many weeks? In such a scenario, the odds right now are that you will escape the virus itself, but not the fallout from quarantine measures if even one passenger or crew member comes aboard the ship infected. This affects not only the giant corporate cruise lines themselves, but thousands of workers who depend on full ships for their livelihoods.

Dear subscribers, the fear, the loss of life, and the personal and worldwide economic impact of coronavirus that I see beginning to surround us could have been avoided, as I have explained in two past Tomorrow’s World telecasts. This did not have to happen. No, mankind has not learned the “Lessons from SARS,” nor come to understand that “Ebola Can Be Prevented.” Go to our website, search for those programs, and watch them for yourself. You will see—the truth is so obvious. These tragedies are unnecessary and completely preventable. This coronavirus reminds us of how vulnerable we are to disease and how temporary our lives are—and it should also remind us, once again, of what happens when man thinks he knows more than his Creator. These lessons are sadly lost on the majority.

But will we ever come to the time when disease is a thing of the past—just a chapter in an ancient history book? The answer has been clear all along, and it may surprise you.

Our bodies are wonderfully made, with marvelous defenses against most dangers. Our skin is a powerful barrier protecting us from a world of pathogens swimming about us as sharks around injured prey. Our bloodstream is filled with flexible and “intelligent” antibodies ready to pounce upon would-be invaders, signaling killer cells to destroy them. Space here does not allow me to do justice to all the defense mechanisms the human body possesses—suffice it to say that we have many natural defensive and offensive weapons available in our bodies to deter most normal biological dangers. Wallace Smith devoted two full pages to this wondrous aspect of God’s design in his article “The War Beneath Your Skin” that appeared in our March-April 2018 issue. 

Marvelous as that system is, we know only too well that pathogens do sometimes get through our defenses and we become sick—usually only temporarily, until our immune system gains the upper hand and we go about life normally once again. But occasionally, a virus like SARS or Ebola gains the upper hand and… well, we find ourselves on a fast track to learning the answer to the age-old questions: Is there life after death? And if there is, have I prepared for it?

Does God Cause Disease… Or Do We?

We all want to understand why, if God is love, He allows mankind to suffer so much from disease. Could He not create another weapon among our defenses to prevent the occasional pandemic? And what about cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and hundreds of other debilitating and deadly afflictions? What kind of God would bring such suffering upon mankind?

The place to start answering these questions is with us. Consider the many afflictions that we know are human-induced and totally preventable. We knew for decades that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and a host of other afflictions. People who are overweight, who get little exercise, and who have a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates are at greater risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to cirrhosis of the liver and makes us more vulnerable to injury and death. Despite this widespread knowledge about potential disease prevention, how many stop smoking, start exercising, and change their diets? Isn’t it time to stop blaming God for our sicknesses when it is clear that, for many of us, some of our own decisions are making us sick?

But what about killers such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, and COVID-19? Surely, we are innocent victims—right?

There is no doubt that the viruses causing these illnesses are non-discriminatory, striking people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of their own. However, surprising as it may be to many, the source of these contagions is known and preventable. Laying aside the question of whether this coronavirus escaped from a “wet market” or a “Biosafety Level-4” lab, we know that horseshoe bats are reservoirs for coronaviruses. If these bats were left in their native environment, they would neither be eaten nor studied to see how to prevent the diseases they carry. SARS and MERS would have been prevented and COVID-19 would be the disaster that never happened.

Coronaviruses such as SARS and COVID-19 will continue among us if human beings—whether in China or anywhere else in the world—continue to eat horseshoe bats, civets, and other exotic creatures. Note this report from almost 15 years ago:

In searching for a reservoir [of viruses], microbiologist Kwok-yung Yuen of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and colleagues sampled monkeys, rodents, and several species of bats in the hinterlands of Hong Kong. The SARS-like virus was found in 39% of the anal swabs collected from Chinese horseshoe bats, which are both eaten and used in traditional Chinese medicine (“SARS Found in Chinese Bats,” Science, September 12, 2005).

Such findings are routinely corroborated, as in the case of SARS:

U.S. researchers were not the first to suggest bats were the source of SARS, but said they had done the largest and most comprehensive analysis of the origin of coronavirus, which causes SARS. The researchers studied genetic data from hundreds of virus samples taken from humans, various bats, civets, raccoon badgers and pigs…. The researchers found that the SARS virus travelled from bats to humans to civets and pigs, and, late in the outbreak, back to humans (“Blame bats for SARS, U.S. researchers say,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, February 19, 2008).

That article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation suggests we should “blame bats.” But how many bats are forcing humans to eat them?

It is also an absolute certainty that Ebola will continue to pop up in West Africa as long as people there eat primates and fruit bats. And bats are implicated in another killer coronavirus, as a 2017 Medical News Today article explains: “Where the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV, or MERS) comes from remains a mystery, but it probably started in an animal. It has been found in camels and a bat” (“MERS-CoV: What you need to know,” Medical News Today, December 19, 2017).

Pigs, as well, are often associated with deadly flu outbreaks and are known to be genetic mixing bowls that allow viruses from one creature to mutate into forms that allow human-to-human transmission. As explained by the BBC, “Nipah virus, which emerged in Malaysia in 1998 and 99, we believe has fruit bats as the reservoir, but it had to go into pigs before it could infect humans” (“Bats a ‘likely source’ of Sars,” BBC News, September 29, 2005).

Although bats, pigs, civets, rodents, and other creatures found in Asian and African meat markets are implicated in these outbreaks, how many people consider the true significance of these facts? How many admit the obvious conclusion that these devastating illnesses are completely preventable? And how many comprehend that obedience to the One who created all life on earth—and gave us loving instructions for our good—would prevent the fear, suffering, death, and huge economic impact on the world that we currently see?

The truth is that bats, primates (such as monkeys), cats, snakes, and many other frequently eaten animals were never intended as food for mankind. Our Creator gave us very simple rules to follow regarding which animal flesh is—and is not—good for our food. If you are curious and courageous enough to do so, you can read these laws in the book known as the Bible. We learn from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 that certain animals, birds, and sea life are good for food, but other creatures need to be avoided. It is no accident that creatures described by God as unfit for human consumption are the very ones that create pandemics when consumed.

Blaming God When We Know Better

It is true that we do not know the cause for every affliction that strikes us, but we know a lot more than we might want to admit. The causes of the most common afflictions are well known, and we have strong suspicions regarding many others. Pollution of our environment is linked to many kinds of cancer. Sex outside a monogamous marriage is a known cause of many painful, debilitating, and deadly diseases. Drug abuse carries with it a host of maladies. But it is much easier to blame God than to accept personal responsibility.

Perhaps it is time to stop blaming God and to start looking in the mirror. But rather than change habits that cause our problems, it is far more tempting to take the easy way out and play the “victim” card.

The Creator declared to the ancient nation of Israel, “If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). Note that the nation was to “diligently” listen to God and follow “all His statutes.”

Has any nation done this? What about your own nation?

No, we reject God, blame Him, and choose to do that which is right in our own eyes—taking a chance on the unknown when the known is proven to work better! Then we blame Him for the results of our callous, self-willed decisions.

The Bible shows that humanity is in for a very painful future of increasing disease, warfare, and natural disasters. But there is coming a time after that—after our Creator has our attention—when Satan, the great deceiver, will be removed, and truth will prevail (Revelation 12:9; 20:1–3). Jesus Christ will then usher in a time of peace and prosperity over the whole earth, because the knowledge of God’s laws, including all of His laws of health, will be understood and practiced everywhere (Isaiah 11:2, 9). That good news is what Tomorrow’s World is about. I hope that the crisis will be over by the time you read this—but even if it is, more crises will come until mankind finally learns its very painful lesson.

UPDATE: On March 11—twelve days after I finally returned home to Charlotte, North Carolina—public health authorities officially declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic. Spread at first by travelers departing from China, Hong Kong, and Macau, community transmission of the virus followed quickly. As I sit here writing this update in early April, the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 has reached most countries, and governments are scrambling to “flatten the curve” and reduce the infection rate, hoping that effective therapies or a vaccine may soon come to the rescue.

If first-world countries are struggling to stay afloat, how will third-world countries cope with the virus? What will happen in India with its high rate of tuberculosis—or across Africa with many millions weakened by HIV/AIDS? These people may seem far removed from most readers of this magazine, but they are human beings made in God’s image, with the same eternal potential as you and I.

It will be some weeks before this magazine reaches your mailbox, and as I write this, it is anyone’s guess where our world will be by then. Even now as I write, Italy is in chaos, Europe is fracturing, the global economy is growing shakier, and nations around the world are facing the imminent threat of bankruptcy. From huge corporations to individuals living paycheck to paycheck, millions are watching their incomes disappear, and governments are borrowing vast sums to provide relief and cover expenses for which none were prepared. It may be that the greatest legacy of COVID-19 is its devastation of livelihoods, economies, and the current world order.

These larger questions should put into perspective such minor inconveniences as postponing a cruise or missing a concert. There is nothing like a world war, a depression, or a pandemic to put our lives into perspective.

How quickly our world today can change! May tomorrow’s world swiftly replace it.

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