Coronavirus: The fear will kill us, too

I believe that fear will weaken, rather than embolden, our resolve. It will undermine our health. Depression will sap our energy and make us partially give up.

A member of a Servpro cleaning crew checks a coworker's protective gear before entering the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S (photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)
A member of a Servpro cleaning crew checks a coworker's protective gear before entering the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S
(photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)
I hate fear and I hate being afraid. But I’ve never seen fear like what’s gripping the world and the United States in the wake of the coronavirus.
Over the past 18 months, Jews have been gunned down in synagogues and hacked near to death with machetes at prayer halls. But in terms of fear, even antisemitism is no match for the coronavirus. Hurricanes and tornadoes have ripped cities and lives apart. But they, too, are no match for the coronavirus. And the steady stream of never-ending news about illnesses – from cancer to obesity to diabetes – is enough to weaken any heart, but it cannot sow the panic of the coronavirus.
I grew up in Miami. If a hurricane was coming to make a direct hit on the city, there was the option, in general, of getting on a plane and flying out. Not so with the coronavirus. Wherever you turn, there it is.
My wife’s family is from Sydney, Australia. It’s just a few weeks since we feared whole cities might burn down. A few months before that it was California that was on fire. But the coronavirus has set the whole world aflame.
For the past two years we’ve seen the ravaging effects of #MeToo, with men exposed for horrible, even abominable behavior. It’s pushed the sexes apart, as more and more women have expressed their disgust at men’s actions. And the endless political partisanship has made everything in our country – and so many others, from Israel to Britain to Brazil – seem nasty and disunited. But that can’t lay a glove on the kind of social distancing the coronavirus has caused.
There has never been anything in our lifetimes like the coronavirus. A global pandemic that we have no medicine for is scaring the living daylights out of all of us.
So perhaps now is the time to remind us all that fear can kill just as fast as any virus. Fear compromises our immunity, and depression renders us inanimate and incapable of fully responding to real threats.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be fully cautious. But there is a huge difference between caution and fear.
In my book Face Your Fear I express it like this: Fear is a hysterical reaction to an imagined threat, while caution is a calculated response to a real danger. Fear freezes us in panic mode, immobilizing our senses, while caution summons us to anticipate future events and evade real and present perils.
I do not dismiss that there will be times when we will pass caution and enter distress. Italy is probably there already, and the United States may, God forbid, be there soon. But even distress is not fear, and this is more than just a play on words. Fear is mostly the product of the unknown, while distress is the product of painful circumstances that must be wisely addressed.
How relevant this is to us now! Being scared to death is not going to help us. It betrays a lack of faith and a rejection of providence. Not knowing the mind of God, I have no idea why God is allowing this scourge to plague humankind. But I know that God loves life; that he has given us an immune system by which to fight disease; that he has endowed humanity with overwhelming wisdom, which it has deployed in devising medical science that will lay siege to this virus and defeat it.
The key is not to lose lives, God forbid, along the way. We must hypervigilant and absolutely err on the side of caution.
Coronavirus is a real danger. The response should be comprehensive, leveraging the full resources of every nation it has affected. We should heed our health professionals, embrace social distancing, and cancel sporting events because they are, after all, mere games. And even cancel much more serious things – like synagogue services, universities and schools – because life, rather than worship, is what religion most promotes.
But for God’s sake, we also have to live with hope. We have to know that if we take the necessary precautions, the virus will pass, a vaccine will be produced, markets will rebound, and life will flourish.
There must be room for faith and optimism at this time. No, I don’t mean the faith of fools that would argue that belief in God is enough and the Creator will make everything okay. Rather, I mean the kind of faith that believes, as Moses commands in the Book of Deuteronomy, that “God will bless you in all that you do.” We must do. We must act. We must fight.
Our medical professionals must find a vaccine. Our political leaders must ensure we have all the tests we need. And all responsible citizens must practice social distancing so as not to spread the virus, especially to the most vulnerable and elderly among us. But all of this should be done because we love life and protect souls rather than because we fear illness and are panicked by death.
I believe that fear will weaken, rather than embolden, our resolve. It will undermine our health. Depression will sap our energy and make us partially give up. But faith, optimism and hope will compel us to do the right thing in a time when exercising wise judgment is the difference between life and death.
LET ME finally say that the past few years have marginalized religion in favor of politics. We have become so obsessed with politics that the pundits and talking heads have almost completely replaced the rabbis, priests and pastors whom we would otherwise want to hear. Networks such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have seen their ratings go through the roof as the public seems to hydrate an unquenchable thirst for political conflict and partisanship.
But ask yourself: Does anyone care now? Is anyone really following the Democratic primaries or Trump squaring off with Pelosi? Does anyone still remember the impeachment vote? And how much press attention has the Israeli election received relative to the coronavirus? Almost zilch.
Now is the time for religion to take its rightful place in a society that marginalized it in favor of politics. People need to hear a message of hope. They need to hear a message of purpose. They need to hear a message of redemption. And, above all else, they need to hear a message of life.
It will come from the rabbis and priests more than from the politicians.
Religion, which has gone nearly mute for the past three years, at this fragile time dare not let humanity down.
The writer, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 33 books, including the upcoming Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.