500-year-old plague advice

By Doreen Zyderveld-Hagel 

It has been said that there are no atheists in a fox hole, and I can’t help but wonder if we on planet Earth aren’t in a fox hole now. 

Here we are in self-isolation, waiting, hoping, and praying the COVID-19 virus missiles won’t strike us and embed in us that bacteria’s awful shrapnel. The virus is a serious health threat that has already claimed over 312,000 lives worldwide.

This pandemic is commonly referred to using warfare terminology, such as the front line, meaning those who work closest to and against the enemy. This foe, being none other than COVID-19, and the army who is fighting it includes doctors, nurses, scientists, cleaning staff, truck drivers, food servers, and store clerks, along with the real military personnel; essentially anyone and everyone who is putting themselves at risk to help others. 

Warfare jargon has had some spiritual battle components associated with pandemics of the past as well. Firstly, Martinus Luther back in 1527 was of the opinion that the plague was caused by evil spirits who poisoned the air and exhaled pestilential breath.

More recently, the belief that demons caused the pandemic was also a view shared by the Chinese community, during the Spanish Flu, which struck Kelowna in 1918. That group of people said that an evil spirit shape-shifted to look like a barefooted young Caucasian boy, who lurked in the shadows of buildings at night and anyone unfortunate enough to see the apparition died.

Is not COVID-19 some kind of malicious entity, wreaking havoc and destruction in the world today, and so far is not one that can be stopped?

The idea of a malevolent spirit plague phenomenon is not some superstitious primitive notion, in my estimation, because Martinus Luther, the famous Protestant Reformer, lived to tell about the Bubonic plague that swept through Wittenberg, Germany, where he lived. He also had sound, practical, ethical and spiritual advice on the subject, which he lived by as a survivor of that pandemic. 

Luther for instance, warned the public to take the medicine that was provided by the doctors and to follow personal hygienic practices, to purify the air in the streets and in their homes by disinfecting them. In regards to the handling of the human remains, he said they should be cremated to prevent the spread, or at least buried outside the cities for the same reason. 

Interestingly, he was also aware of contaminated bodily fluids entry points, even through the eyes of the dying, going into the eyes of those doctoring them. PPE, such as goggles, face masks and shields, are used today to prevent this particular entry point, but not something readily available in that form, or known of back then.  

Obeying the ordinances established by the local governments, such as quarantining and avoiding public spaces, was something Luther also recommended. He had strong admonitions for those who would put themselves at risk, either by thinking they were somehow invincible under their own steam, or that God would protect them and they need not take any precautions.  

Both ways is suicide, and homicide, many times over, according to Luther, as those individuals are murdering others who otherwise would have survived, had these reckless persons taken basic safety measures.  Consequently, they needlessly exposed family friends, neighbours, and the general public to the plague by their careless actions.

He also was horrified at the reports he received of some people who knew they were infected and deliberately went into other peoples’ homes and contaminated women and children. These people are assassins, he stated, and vehemently condemned, saying that these ruthless individuals should be delivered over to Jack the Hangman promptly.  

He hoped those allegations weren’t true; otherwise: “We Germans are more devils than human beings,” and he supposed it would be better to live with wild beasts than such as these. 

Sadly, there are similar reports of people today, who knew they are contaminated with the virus, and needed to be put in ankle bracelet tracking devices, because they wouldn’t stay home. It would appear that the cruelty some people are capable of hasn’t changed much in that regard, in the 500 years since Luther was around.  

Luther also believed that those who take chances by not protecting themselves as best they can, are like someone who falls out of a boat and refuses to swim, saying God will pull me out of the water if He wants to, or that He is punishing me, so I must die.  

Same goes with a family that doesn’t leave a burning house when able to, saying God will put out the fire and we don’t have to escape. Likewise, if neighbours see the fire and say the same thing, then the whole city would burn down. In those instances he says we are putting God to the test, which is not a good thing, when God gave us brains to use and self-preservation is instinctual for a reason. 

The Protestant reformer also believed that to flee the plague was not a bad thing in and of itself, if those whom you are responsible for are taken care of, such as employees, neighbours, and other adults. But to abandon them in their need to save your own skin would lead to a much worse eternal fate.  

To ignore and leave an unfortunate person lying in the street like a dog or a pig, to succumb to whatever calamity befalls him, is to also have that person’s blood on your hands, according to Luther. He also believed we must take in the orphan or the adult, even one who may be covered in as many boils as the hairs on their body, if the hospitals are full and overwhelmed. It would be better to die helping the plague victims, than to live with their deaths on your head, Luther insisted.  

He said that if Jesus died for us, we can die for each other if necessary. Those who say they would look after Jesus if he fell ill but ignore their neighbour is a liar, as Jesus had said whatsoever you did for them, you did for him – or neglected to do. (1 John 40:20 and Matthew 25:40.)

Nonetheless, God promised also that, as our gracious attendant and great physician, he will sustain them on their sick bed and heal their infirmities, referring to those who help others, or are sick and ask him to save them.  

The plague is a feeble germ according to Luther, and God is in control, and can and will help those who ask of him. Psalm 91:11 states that God will put his angels in charge of you to protect you from the perilous pestilence.  The catch, however, which he did not mention, is that it is a promise for those who believe in Jesus and the word of God, and do what is right according to following scripture, not what one may arbitrarily think is right or wrong in their own minds.   

Finally there are those, both then and now, who stubbornly object to the word God, or Jesus or praying; or the notion that good and evil forces are at work. These individuals rely entirely on scientists to come up with a vaccine, and on medical personnel to save us. For some unfortunates it will be too late.

It would seem that things are spiraling out of control, and whereas this pandemic may not take as many lives as it did back in Luther’s time, what we do know though, is that life as we know it won’t be the same again.  

Once this pandemic is stamped out, the fallout from COVID-19 is as still as of yet unfathomable. The shrapnel from the COVID-19 missiles will take many forms, with various consequences. However, God is still in charge and in him I put my trust, and have peace in knowing that.  


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