Being human in the coronavirus era

Being human in the coronavirus era

I, like many, only knew the word ‘corona’ in two very separate meanings. The first was the excellent Mexican beer whose company has reported a £132 million loss of revenue after being unfairly associated with the virus. The second was the corona around the sun which, apparently, gave scientists the name of the virus because of its similar shape. Such a simple name which produces COVID-19, a respiratory illness that can basically suffocate humans, has not only killed and made ill over 16 million people but turned the everyday life of our planet’s population into a living nightmare that must somehow not only be coped with but turned, post-Covid, into a better world.

For many of us, the social distancing that is required is the worst part. It means that grandparents are separated from grandchildren; that people in love cannot touch one another; that all spots where people socialise have to be closed, including churches, schools, theatres, pubs and bingo halls; that we do a version of the dance of death around supermarkets trying to stock up while avoiding other shoppers. Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master of the Dominicans, described touch as “the nourishment of our humanity” yet it has become now the possible vector of a deadly virus.

It is a virus which has the ability to undermine our very humanity given that we are radically relational, caught up in a web of obligations to others, summed up in the term derived from Catholic Social Teaching, ‘the common good’. The South African theologian, Albert Nolan, says that struggling for the common good is actually fulfilling the will of God since it is “whatever is best for the whole human family or the whole community of living beings or the whole universe in its grand unfolding. We are not isolated individuals. We are parts of a greater whole and it is the whole that determines the very existence of the parts”.[1]

The other principle of Catholic Social Teaching which comes to mind is human dignity. We have seen this undermined in the coronavirus era by scuffles in supermarkets over toilet rolls, by the initial, furious stockpiling of essential goods such as toilet rolls and pasta (in Scotland?), by trolls becoming violent on planes while refusing to wear masks and by the Western countries being so focused on self that they forget the plight of countries in the global South who are trying to fight the spread of the virus and to care for those affected with inadequate health systems.

The inequalities we have allowed to grow in our world through what Pope Francis describes as ‘an economy which kills’, have already started to cause a huge harvest of death in so-called developing countries unless we respond. Church aid and development agencies mostly lost their Lenten collections as they coincided with lockdowns and no Church services in many countries. Caritas Scotland/SCIAF’s Lenten collection on the Fourth Sunday of Lent was a victim of coronavirus but this official aid agency of the Scottish Catholic Church will still be contributing to a fund to allow their partners to fight against the virus and care for those affected and infected.

So, in this era of the coronavirus, how should we human beings respond? In many countries we have responded well to our magnificent health service providers and welfare staff, the police and all those involved in charities to help the homeless, the vulnerable and the weakest sections of our own societies. In this time when we have to keep apart from one another in order to survive and for the virus to be contained, surely our eyes should not be on ourselves alone but be cast further afield to those countries which do not have flushing toilets for the majority, which do not possess the funds to tackle the virus in any meaningful way, where particularly the poorest live cheek by jowl and cannot have the luxury of social distancing.  Some countries are led by, as Brazil is, a madman who is set on killing the most vulnerable in his country which are the poor of the favelas, the black population of the country and the indigenous peoples in the rainforests. President Jair Bolsonaro is allowing the Amazon to be destroyed for what he calls ‘development’ and what in colonial times was called ‘plunder’ .

And in this era of the coronavirus, what are people of faith urged to do? The Lord invites us, as Pope Francis said in his Extraordinary Moment of Prayer on 27th March, “in the midst of our tempest, ….to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering……and to allow new forms of hospitality fraternity and solidarity[to flourish]”. Now we have the time to help even from our living rooms – to support agencies such as those in the Caritas network which support the most vulnerable, at home and overseas;  to pray especially for those in the global South and to show acts of solidarity with them, reminding our politicians that some of us care not just for our own people but for all humanity.

But it is becoming clear that we have an extra, important task. We must shift the focus from our obsession with our own pleasure to joining a movement to envision what a post-Covid world could look like. I would suggest two foci for Catholic thinking and praxis which the Dominican Order should promote. The first is to bring the focus back to healthcare for all, as well bring attention back to the other Sustainable Development Goals to build on the, sadly minimal, successes of the Millennium Development Goals.

The second is to emphasise the Armageddon of the Climate Crisis which will also affect the poorest most. We have to promote the messages of Laudato Si’, the magnificent encyclical of Pope Francis. His notion of integral ecology shows how poverty, the climate crisis, the decline in habitat for the other creatures we share the planet with, and the killing of the oceans and their inhabitants through plastic and other waste, to name only a few elements, are all interconnected and must be dealt with in a holistic way. The Catholic Social Teaching principles of solidarity, the option for the poor and planet, subsidiarity and the common good are the foundations for a new world.

There are two emerging sides in the post-Covid world – those who advocate a simpler lifestyle and those who advocate accelerated economic growth. It is our task, as Catholics and Dominicans, to envision a world where we live simply so that others may simply live, and promote an economy which does not exploit people and focuses not on the market but on human beings, ensuring that economic activity meets real needs and is green. We have important messages to relay to the world from our faith but Covid has taught us that we will only survive catastrophe when we work together on a common vision with all people and become less individualistic and more communitarian.

[1] Albert Nolan OP, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Boos, 2006) 188.

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