Things I Learned: February 28, 2020

Most of my feeds have been dominated by news of the Coronavirus this week. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between viruses, fads, and movements, and lessons we can learn.

1. There are well-known key factors in the spread of a disease: (1) how infectious a disease is (how many people an infected person is likely to pass the disease on to), (2) how long it takes for one person to infect others, (3) how long a person is infectious, and (4) how long between infection and showing symptoms. This latter period is especially important: if no one knows a person is sick, that person can go around ‘like normal’ infecting people. When a person starts showing symptoms, or when they get too sick to ‘go around like normal,’ then they will move away from people (“I’m sick, I’m going home and get some rest”) or people will begin moving away from them. This keeps them from infecting others. One factor in the coronavirus is that it has a longer-than-usual ‘asymptomatic’ period (in which symptoms are unseen).

2. When faced with a rapidly-spreading disease, governments and others have two avenues which they can pursue: ‘containment’ and ‘mitigation’. ‘Containment’ means we separate, quarantine, and even go so far as to contain within geographic areas (e.g. travel bans, border monitoring, etc). ‘Mitigation’ is about removing the disease/virus/fad from the individual or the community. When diseases aren’t considered especially dangerous, people often focus on mitigation—caring for the sick, urging people to get flu vaccines and the like. When diseases are especially deadly, governments quickly jump to containment. It has been instructive watching the response of various countries to this particular virus, and seeing what they are willing (and unwilling) to do, and how a virus can spread in that context. China, for example, is willing to go to great lengths to contain the virus, including virtual house arrest. Iran was less willing to even acknowledge the virus. In some ways, this ‘willingness’ mirrors what governments are willing to do about the spread of the Gospel, too.

3. The best time to contain a rapidly multiplying disease is at the very beginning; once it has infected a number of people, exponential growth makes it nearly impossible to contain. Containment in some instances seems to be less and less possible, especially with very infectious diseases. So there are ‘outlier’ cases simply popping up in various places, with no way of identifying out how they got the disease. When this happens, people can start to panic—anyone could have the disease, and the symptoms don’t show early on. This leads to some of the racism we are now seeing. In addition, once the disease is sufficiently spread, ‘regular’ containment (telling people to stay home, or to wash their hands a lot, etc.) isn’t an option. Extreme containment or living with the disease and attempting to care and mitigate becomes the norm.

4. When people get scared, the random mob-like actions of individuals are always more dangerous than governments. I’ve seen so many stories of people being beaten and killed.

5. ‘Super-spreader’ events and individuals are critical to the spread of a virus or a movement. If you don’t have super-spreaders, the disease has to be incredibly infectious to spread fast enough in the length of time before the person is too sick to be in contact with other individuals. The common cold, for example, has a run length on average of about 2 weeks, but any single individual is typically only spreading it in the first couple of days. South Korea is having an outsized coronavirus impact because of a super-spreader event at a cultic church; Iran is seeing it spread through various religious assemblies. The search for ‘apostolic agents’ or ‘missional people’ or ‘evangelistically-gifted’ etc. is the search for ‘super-spreaders.’

6. Also interesting: in the case of the coronavirus, many cases are ‘missed.’ The world is very interested in the mortality rate of the coronavirus—what percentage of people who get the disease die from it. (# who die / total cases = mortality rate). It looks like the mortality rate for the coronavirus is about 2%. Flu is 10X lower. SARS was far higher. But we might not actually know the mortality rate, because the coronavirus causes bad cases in some and milder cases in others. We might not catch all the ‘mild cases,’ so we are getting the division problem wrong. Likewise in some places, many of the ‘cases’ of Christianity are missed, so the government tends not to crack down on it until it ‘bursts’ out into the open. (This can is the negative side of a ‘super-spreader.’) Christianity seeping into the civilization ‘under the radar’ is less likely to be persecuted, but is also less likely to be seen from the standpoint of mission researchers like me.

7. As someone progresses through the disease, they get over it, and they no longer pass it on. Likewise, with any viral fad or movement, there comes a point where you are no longer spreading the fad or movement. (Anecdotally, I’ve been told that churches that don’t plant new churches within 4 years, likely won’t. It’s more efficient, effective, and easier to start a new reproducing church.)

8. A single instance of a disease always dies out (if it didn’t, everyone would either be sick or dead). But the ‘basin’ or ‘context’ from which the disease comes remains. A disease, or a different variant of it, can come back. It’s perhaps a terrible analogy, but the same is true with most viral fads and even Gospel movements. Just because a government thinks it has eradicated the Gospel, it doesn’t mean it can’t come back.

9. “How the coronavirus revealed authoritarianism’s fatal flaw” is a fascinating piece on the limits of surveillance and know-all/control-all. I try to read nearly everything Zeynep Tufekci writes. She’s just brilliant on this subject.

This is my short newsletter on things related to missions that I am thinking. If you want my Weekly Roundup, a longer collection of annotated links to events this week that impact mission, see my website at