A Q&A on coronavirus with an infectious disease specialist

Recently, we emailed with Scott James—a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Alabama—about coronavirus, increasing fear, and how Christians should respond. 

What is COVID-19?  

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an outbreak of respiratory disease due to a novel coronavirus. The virus itself has been named “SARS-CoV-2” while the term COVID-19 refers to the disease it causes. Initially detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed on every continent except Antarctica. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 vary, but fever, fatigue, runny nose, and cough are common. Asymptomatic or extremely mild cases are possible as well. At this point, it appears most people who become infected recover without any special treatment. Severe respiratory disease and even death are also possible, but exact rates are difficult to pin down because the denominator (total number of cases) is unknown due to the high likelihood of undiagnosed/unconfirmed cases within affected communities. 

As with any newly emerging infection, we still have much to learn about COVID-19. But healthcare workers are fortunate to be able to glean insights from previous coronavirus outbreaks, as well as a baseline understanding of the importance of public health preparedness. Coronaviruses—so named because of the surface proteins that spike from their surface in a crown-like fashion—are not a new entity. There are several well-established human coronavirus strains that cause self-limited upper respiratory infections (i.e., the common cold). More severe respiratory disease can occur, but is infrequent. 

What’s notable about COVID-19 is the emergence of a new human pathogen (SARS-CoV-2), which likely arose from animal hosts (though the specific animal reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been confirmed). Analogous coronavirus outbreaks have occurred, albeit on a smaller scale, twice in the past 20 years: SARS-CoV, the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and MERS-CoV, the cause of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).    

Why do you think people seem to be so fearful about it? Are you, as an infectious disease specialist, concerned?

At this point, the fear of the unknown seems to be a common theme in the responses I’m seeing. Because we are early in the course of the epidemic, there’s still a lot we don’t know. It’s clear that COVID-19 has the potential to reach pandemic proportions, but even in saying that, there are many variables at play that will determine just how severe it gets (e.g., will transmission patterns change as the virus enters new geographic regions, will one of the treatments or vaccines currently under investigation prove effective, etc?). 

As an infectious diseases specialist, part of my role is to consider these forward-thinking questions while also doing everything I can to care for the sick and stop the spread of disease here and now. It’s a both/and proposition: do what I can to help the problem today while also thinking ahead about how to wisely handle what may be around the corner. One thing that does cause me some concern is the general tendency to focus on the unknowns in a way that stokes panic and fear. This is not helpful and can even lead to unreasonable and counterproductive responses. Instead of fretting over potential catastrophes, pay attention to the opportunities that are right in front of you: take care of yourself, take care of others, and do your part to limit the spread of disease.

How should we be thinking about the potential of a worldwide pandemic? 

I would encourage Christians to view potential pandemics through the lenses of preparedness and perspective. Preparedness simply means we will seek to inform ourselves of the situation and to make responsible choices for our own good and for the good of our communities. It means a willingness to listen, take good advice, and act in a way that demonstrates a desire to be a part of the solution. Preparedness happens at an individual or family level, but it also happens at community, state, national, and even global levels. In a way, our own individual preparedness determines how successful large-scale public health measures will be. 

Trusting in God equips us to take the threat seriously without giving into panic or despair. We can grasp the gravity of the situation while knowing that nothing is beyond his reach.

The other lens through which Christians can view potential pandemics is perspective. By that, I mean a biblical perspective based on the understanding that no matter what threat is on the horizon, God is still in control. Trusting in God equips us to take the threat seriously without giving into panic or despair. We can grasp the gravity of the situation while knowing that nothing is beyond his reach. When the world is struck by fear, Christians have a beautiful opportunity to show where true hope comes from. 

Where would you recommend we look for up-to-date information?

I recommend looking to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  They are not infallible, but both offer reliable information in a user-friendly format. Bear in mind that information evolves quickly in an ongoing outbreak investigation, so it’s important to stay up to date. 

What should we be doing currently to prepare our families and communities?

The everyday preventative measures that will help you avoid COVID-19 are the basically the same ones that healthcare providers advise every year during flu season:

Otherwise, the basic tenets of home preparedness involve having supplies on hand in case the situation warrants staying home for a period of time. Assess and ensure adequate stores of food, water, toiletries, and prescription medicines. It is best to do this ahead of time rather than at the last minute. 

At present, unless you have been to an affected area or been in direct contact with someone who has, the risk of infection is still low. As global travel and sustained transmission continue, this risk may increase in the coming weeks. In that event, it will still be important to remember the basic prevention techniques outlined above. Unregulated products promising to prevent and cure COVID-19 will inevitably follow wherever an outbreak occurs—beware of scams and hoaxes playing on people’s fears. 

How do you talk to your children about COVID-19? 

I keep it simple and straightforward. “An infection is making some people very sick and we’re waiting to see how far it will spread. In the meantime, there are a lot of very compassionate people who are working hard to take care of the sick and help stop the infection. We’re going to love our neighbors by doing our part to stay healthy and not spread the infection. Most importantly, when scary things like this happen, it’s a great time to talk with God and tell him how much we need his help.” 

And for my teenagers, I add, “Don’t get your information from memes.”

When you get anxious about something, what do you lean on in Scripture to help you keep your mind on things above?

When I am anxious, I think of the psalmist’s words in Psalm 71:12,14–15: “O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! . . . I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge.”

When circumstances are beyond my control, I can unabashedly cry out to God for deliverance. But as I call on him, I want to remember and take comfort in his past faithfulness—his righteous acts and his deeds of salvation. God’s perfect track record gives me a rock-solid hope. And not just any hope, but a hope that leads to action and compels me to declare his glory to the nations. During uncertain times like these, that is exactly what the nations need to hear. 

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the editorial director for the ERLC. She oversees the day-to-day management of all content and resources from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24