Service to Others in a Virus Outbreak

I just returned from a trip to Asia. I had people tell me I should not go. I had others tell me they were glad I came. To tell you the truth, my emotions were in different places moment by moment.

I had moments where I was filled with faith and confident of the decisions we were making. After all, I had led a Generous Mind Conversation on the SARS Outbreak and had thought deeply about these issues. As a part of an organizing team for an event, we did the hard work of looking at the data, consulting with people on the ground and prayerfully considering the implications. Since our travels and activities were not in China, we finally decided that the importance of what we were doing outweighed the potential danger we were walking into.

I also had moments of grumbling as I wore a mask, of fear as I applied yet another layer of hand sanitizer and exhaustion as I tried to continually assess if my habits and actions were lining up with the greater care required.

But at the end of the day it wasn't about me. I was there to serve others. I was taking care so that I did not put those around me or my family back home in harms way. This trip helped me to realize six realities of serving others in a virus outbreak. The first three are barriers to service and the next three are opportunities for service:

Barriers to Service

  1. "Don't Touch Anything or Anyone." In an outbreak every surface, every human contact, every cough or sneeze is a potential threat. This changes how we relate to people. Others are now seen as threats rather than opportunities. We can't shake hands, give hugs or pat people on the shoulder. Every door nob, elevator button and restaurant table is suspect. This puts up walls that are most epitomized by the masks many are wearing. We no longer see each other's smiles, frowns or expressions of understanding. It is harder to connect and to support one another when physical barriers are present. 
  2. "Don't Gather Together." Getting together is so much harder during an outbreak. Whether you are asking people to get on planes to attend events or simply going to the grocery store in search of supplies, groups of people are seen as risks. I spent 10 minutes going through registration and screening to walk into a church for a Sunday service because of government requirements on group gatherings in one country. I also lost a few attendees to my event because of logistics related to the outbreak. It became harder to learn from others when barriers to gathering were increased. 
  3. "Don't Trust Authority." As the first two barriers went up, I noticed that it became easier and easier to lose trust in the systems and institutions that I used to count on to keep me safe. "What are they hiding?" or "Why are they doing it that way?" became regular thougths. Whether it was governments, airlines, hotels, churches, organizations or businesses, it didn't matter. In an outbreak everything can feel like a threat. As systems and institutions are questioned, our ability to serve others through those entities becomes harder. I found myself wondering if the airline had done enough, questioning the hotel's information to us, and double guessing the decisions made by governments that were affecting my plans and movement. It was more challenging to serve when my attention was focused on double guessing the core systems and institutions that I would usually have trusted. 
Opportunities for Service
  1. "Do Address the Fear." I found myself having multiple opportunities each day to hear about the fear and anxiety being experienced by a taxi driver, hotel worker, co-worker or friend. While I couldn't give that person a hug, I was able to encourage many and receive the benefit of other's encouragement. When fear strikes, it lays wide open our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as people. In those moments, people must wrestle with where their identity is, who they trust and how they will cope. I found myself emboldened by each step I took in faith, even as I found myself weakened by each anxious moment. It was a time where weakness was more obvious and easier to discuss; both in my talks with God and others. 
  2. "Do Care for Others." The number of opportunities to love and serve others seemed to come to life everywhere I went. I saw countless examples of people showing kindness, sharing resources and stepping up to meet needs. One example was an organization I met with who is actively looking to support marginalized communities in one country who have little access to information about the outbreak. The real challenge I noticed was not whether there were new ways to serve, but how to prioritize and evaluate these opportunities in light of the challenges. With so many needs and heightened risk, how do you assess which service opportunities to focus on and help those you serve with process the risk they face in reaching out? 
  3. "Do Share Your Story." I have seen countless stories of how people are coping with the outbreak and showing love to those around them. These stories are a testimony to the God who made us and His way of looking at the world He created. But they are not the only stories. For every good story you hear, there are five stories of panic, hoarding supplies, fear and sickness. I have been reminded again of the importance of being a Generous Mind. The very act of sharing your journey, your experience, your pain, and your joy is a critical part of being a human and responding in love. But with so many barriers, it can seem like too much work. You may wonder if there is any value or impact in it. I have seen first hand on this trip that sharing freely is of utmost importance. The stories of others were critical to my resolve and my response. 
Now I know that my experience is not like the hundreds of millions in China who are suffering and struggling in the center of this outbreak. I simply brushed up against this monster on a two-week trip. So I don't claim to understand all that they might be feeling and facing. But my story still counts. What I felt, experienced and learned is what billions of our fellow humans are walking through at this moment. Did you know that more people live within a day's plane ride of the outbreak than live further away? 

So here is my challenge to you: How can you prepare yourself today so that when something like a virus outbreak reaches your door, you are ready to serve?

Read my latest post on decision making about events and travel during the coronavirus outbreak: Should I Stay or Should I Go