Some of us have seen, on our television screens picture of Jesuit Pope Francis, standing in the pouring rain and praying and blessing the whole world in front of now empty St. Peter’s square otherwise filled with thousands of devotees irrespective of the religion they belong. Then there is news just coming in that authorities in China have ordered mandated silence of three minutes for those who lost their lives because of Corona pandemic. No doubt however small these types of actions taken by some of the exemplary leaders bring comfort, inspirations, a call all of us to feel solidarity with those who suffer and struggle with day to day lives. Looking at some of the initiatives taken in Sri Lanka because of the virus, what can we say or not say?
Since in times of calamities religion can indeed bring solace, one of my good friends told me that instead of announcing and giving in for commercialized television outlets one more chance to obtain more rates by promoting religion as a “commodity” or another “reality show” our prominent religious leaders of all religions should have asked all temples, all churches, Kovils and Mosques throughout the island to conduct their services privately in their own place of worship and their followers to remain at home and pray and meditate silently and in solidarity at a specific time. Temple bells, church bells and Kovil bells, ringing and mosque loudspeakers could call worshippers to worship This will surely lead, starting with one’s family members, people in whole villages, towns and cities praying simultaneously and invoking blessings on Sri Lankans and on the world outside far and near at the given time. If this is done regularly or even for a week or for a day, in this time of turbulence, all broadcast stations could remain silent or play sober music to bring reverence to the on-going religious practices at the given time. As someone said, this is the time to know who your true friends are to know friends and get to know the leaders whose values are pretty and shallow.
At this time, of the year as most of us are we are locked in, we are also further challenged by ordinary and otherwise forgotten people who do not make the news, or appear on headlines, on TV like the street sweeper, fish vendor and vegetable seller, who risk his/her life bringing essential basic commodities to one’s doorstep without making much money like big franchised companies or big market outlets who supply only if you order bulk. Time has come to realize now that much preached and practised by most of our politicians “every man for himself” doctrine is no longer valid and should be discouraged and discarded. indeed “Every man or woman is his/her brother’s keeper” as it is prescribed in the Bible.
At this time of calamity, enforced Rule or “must” of “social distance” has forced the binding social and religious and social rituals of COVID-19 funeral attendances of all our religions by law or by custom, confined to one or two immediate family members. Instead of spreading false claims and derogatory remarks on the Muslim community, the state should make sure that they take into consideration their religious sentiments too by remaining apolitical. Before enforcing cremation by force, cons and pros of mandated religious customs and difficulties( digging deep graves and finding people for these tasks at this time) should be discussed with the highest religious body and their suggestions should be discussed seriously. As one writer puts aptly corona pandemic has forced us to “miss the people whom we love very much and even people we do not love or enjoy being with…”. It is a comfort for us and comfort for them as corona threatens all of us, and all our loved ones, if we do not go near them without needed protection.
When we heard first time about COVID-19 most of us took it as a faraway news item another planet usual happening which will not affect us and we thought of it, as another death of someone, just a number we have not met. Unfortunately, what we hear on our daily media menu is “flight” or “fight”. Most of the prominent world bodies also warned us and cautioned world leaders of the effects of unchecked climate change. We do remember how in the recent past, some residents of Munnakkara in Negombo staged a protest with some politicians, demanding to permit the construction of a playground on an island that has a high density of mangroves in the area.
Coronavirus has made us finally realize the importance of safeguarding the natural environment, and that nature is not our enemy but a formidable protector of any pandemic that can play havoc any time. As another writer puts it succinctly most of us are also guilty and liable because we have spent most of our time by dismantling the natural protection that nature gives and degrading the vast areas of the natural habitat for our often selfish big ‘building mania. Disease ecologist Dr Thomas Gillespie of Emory University holds that by radically shrinking natural habitats and annexing “wilderness areas for human use by the consent of our politicians( italics mine)humanity keeps on removing the protective barriers between ourselves and animals that carry these pathogens. Without thinking of the consequences most of us are in mighty hurry to cut our own grave by removing and destroying natural buffer zones that keep us safe.
In a recent article Aaron Bernstein director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, throws food for further thought by linking climate change to the rise in zoogenic illnesses. He articulates that we are responsible for climate change. As we know COVID-19 goes hand in hand with the causes of climate change, the effects of climate change exacerbate the catastrophic outcomes. More specifically it means polluted air is deadly during a respiratory disease pandemic. It is reported that a study on SARS-COVID, a disease very similar to present corona has found that infected patients from areas with higher air pollution were 84 per cent more likely to die than those in less polluted areas. The same outcomes are foretold with COVID-19. Nature’s clean oxygen keep our lungs healthier, but we tend with the help of corona politicians we make oxygen into a chain smoker of diesel fumes and CO2. We cooperating to lower our nature-given collective immune system.
If we are to learn a lesson as Sri Lankans in a developing country, the present challenge is not only to limiting ourselves to organizing “reality” art competitions and song compositions and trying to telecasting “reality” religious ceremonies for masses. We can do much more. We have more than enough ‘pseudo’ as well as political-religious dignitaries who “cry wolf” only to safeguard their political masters but not thinking of long-term solutions for the problems that might arise even in future for the majority of the people. To cite a few examples, the alarm should have come from these leaders, on issues how under the pretext of corona virus, a criminal convicted by courts in Sri Lanka was pardoned. How massive hauls of drugs continue to come daily into the country, how natural habitat gets destroyed with the consent of powerful politicians and so on. What was the response of “so-called religious leaders representing all major religions in Sri Lanka to some of these critical issues? Have they voiced their opinion on this matters anytime or remained silent representing three wise monkeys who said, believing in see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” doctrine, maintaining the vow of silence they have pledged to appease their political masters? By endorsing wholeheartedly and encouraging their followers also to remain silence I am afraid that there is an imminent danger that prowls in Sri Lanka, namely our country run by Oligarchy under the pretext of democracy. In other words, power resting in the hands of a small number of people. They will definitely and necessarily be supported by a privileged few, namely selected people who control, wealth, education, religion, politics, and military and the media preaching obedience and encouraging oppression of those who dare to resist with draconian laws.
Time has come for all of us to pay more and serious attention to the man-made climate change which will bring more terrible disasters to all of us. In order to emphasize the importance of safeguarding natural environments, leading scientists have further pointed out recently that lack of emissions due to state-mandated ‘lockdown’ saved many more lives than the given figure 3,297 that official numbers say died of the virus.
As we are locked in our homes, for the safety of us and safety of all others let the Avurudu Koha sing his repeated yearly reminder that’ preserve the climate’ not subdue the nature, but be a Stuart to preserve it. Let Avurudu Koha remind all of us his ‘swan song’ that nature is our true friend, a true companion, the earth is our brother, trees are our sisters, choose life, not death. The way we live now is the insurance and savings for the future which can be bleak if we are not careful. Nothing can ever be the same again for all of us. Our leaders should put more emphasis on “solitude” rather than isolation. Coronavirus has shown that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. Whether we like it or not all of us belong to one single organism. An infection appears in one part can spread and infect the whole. As it said in Latin ‘your sneeze is also my problem. Time has come to realize identify true leaders, to know who are our true friends and true neighbours.
Let us recall what John Donne wrote that “ No man is an island. … Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you”