By Mohamed Harees –
This Coronavirus pandemic is a disaster of seismic magnitude of our times; a world-shattering event whose far-ranging consequences cannot be fathomed yet. Perhaps more than any disease in living memory, it chimes with our society’s fears. If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel corona virus has brought that home. It is thus a test not only of our healthcare systems and mechanisms for responding to infectious diseases, but also of our ability to work together as a community of nations in the face of a common challenge. It is also fact that this global, novel virus that keeps us contained in our homes—maybe for months—is already reorienting our relationship to government, to the outside world, even to each other. Thus ,if the shock of corona virus disruption isn’t enough for us to recalibrate and reflect on our values and life priorities, what will be?
In the hopes of ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic, a coronavirus culture has emerged, spontaneously and creatively, to deal with public fear, restrictions on daily life, and the tedious isolation of quarantine. Traditions have developed because they fit the ecology and biology of the times. This crisis has also raised serious medical, ethical and logistical questions too. But, for faith communities who are among those most affected by this virus simply by virtue of the fact that they gather in person frequently, it raises additional questions and challenges.
There is a point of view, that COVID-19 crisis poses a challenge to faith and religion, thereby losing its potency in the lives of people, as ‘science and medicine’ is said to be working out to be a more reliable solution in fighting this pandemic. However, it is naïve to make this comparison as faith/religious values and science is not in contradiction with each other. Each plays important, significant and complementary roles in our lives. Faith in the Divine and prayers hold us together in hope and community as a distraught world is losing its sense of direction and purpose at these difficult times, while ‘science and medicine’ is effectively tackling the virus in practical ways. Thus, down on earth, as this pandemic has been felling lives, livelihoods and normalcy, on the contrary, billions of the faithful, are drawing even closer to religion, which has become the solace of first resort for them!
During the course of history, faith in the Divine power, has been the glue that holds people together in moments of crisis like this and also a purveyor of hope in moments of immense anxieties and fears. It has been a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of well-being. At a time when the people are exercising social distancing and are facing lockdowns and curfews, religion also acts as antidote to loneliness, which several medical experts point to as one of the most worrisome public health issues of our time. At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. Besides, the most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence. Thus, when the religious needs of practicing people aren’t met, it leads to a tension between physical health and spiritual comfort, which in some ways becomes an irreconcilable one- a dilemma which inevitably generates some sort of interior starvation. Thus, for the faithful, religion becomes a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope for human kind, and will in fact complement the efforts of the scientific and medical community in helping them to manage this crucial time phase in their recorded history. In this context, the role of religion in helping to manage this crisis; even its post-phase, will expand rather than diminish as some may naively think.
Already religion has been playing a positive role in the containment exercise of this virus. Many changes and adjustments are already evident in the practise of faiths in the face of this global pandemic. Around the world, many faiths have been adapting to the new reality surrounding the Corona crisis. Heeding public health warnings, churches, mosques, Hindu Kovils, Buddhist temples and synagogues are changing rituals in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Houses of worship have already faced closure or have gone empty. Many religious leaders have made fervent appeals to the faithful to stay at home and engage in worship, while making unprecedented and drastic moves to change their routines, such as cancelling worship services, closing religious schools and holy sites. For Muslims for example, congregational prayers on Friday is a religious obligation. But as congregations across the country and the world weighed whether to stay open, experts in Islamic law stepped in, entreating the faithful to follow government guidelines and avoid the mosque even for these weekly congregational Friday prayers and instead pray at home. Saudi Arabia closed both sacred mosques in Makkah and Medina. Other religious leadership too made similar moves. Sunday Mass and Easter services cancelled too. The imperative need to avoid public spaces in hoping to contain the spread of coronavirus, was impressed upon on believers of all stripes knowing that God helps those who help themselves and others around them, with thoughtful prudence.
How significant will the role of religions be, during this difficult phase and its post-phase? The interaction between religious and scientific communities can however be inhibited by a perception that they don’t share the same worldview. But in fact, both religion and science basically work around a same core value- to heal mankind and the world around them in different ways. Thus, if ever religious and scientific communities need to join together in pursuing wholeness and healing for the world, it’s now, when mankind is facing an existential threat.
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all nations and all classes of people, redrawing global priorities and disrupting economies in unprecedented ways not known in recent history. Each country needs every other country and everyone within its borders in its fight against this deadly virus. The wizardry of modern technology is overwhelmed and the advanced medical systems of the super powers have palpably become idle boasts in the face of a shock of this magnitude. Even the US despite being a great power, in the wake of this COVID-19 transnational threat, like climate change, has come to realize that it cannot protect its security by acting alone. This crisis will reshuffle the international power structure in ways we can only imagine, as it provides a seismic shock that permanently changes the international system and balance of power as we know it. The pandemic itself is proof of our interdependence. Every nation, and increasingly every individual, is experiencing the societal strain of this disease in new and powerful ways. Amidst this, there is also a conflicting reality that all countries are turning inward and saying, ‘I am going to do what is good for me’.
Be it as it may, isn’t Corona Pandemic a great leveller of sorts? The world, particularly the powerful nations, in its on-going and Post corona phase ought to realise their inherent weakness in the wake of this invisible enemy and therefore realize the imperative need for humility and inter dependency and support without engaging in futile shows of macho power. The mirage of dignity and the reality of inequality in the lives of people are exposed like never before. The religion has a role to play in taking this message to the grass root level of the society and encourage them to think and compel their leaders to think about all levels of humanity whether within or outside their borders. There is also a need for the institution of Religion to provide leadership along with the HR activists to force the hands of their governments as well as international agencies to initiate sustainable and realistic programs of action to help the poor and the needy across the globe, and stop the hypocrisy around the human rights regimes used by the powerful nations as a tool to control the developing world.
There is another ethical issue coming to the fore as the pandemic moves towards its peak. In a context of grave shortage of health resources, to combat the increasing casualties and fatalities arising from this pandemic, many countries adversely affected have even laid down guidelines to be adopted in an over-stretched situation, to say, intensive care should be given to “patients with the best chance of success” and those with the “best hope of life” should be prioritized. Italy is one such example, with UK reportedly expected to follow suit where such guidelines are in operation. The guidelines also say that in “in the interests of maximizing benefits for the largest number,” limits could be put on intensive care units to reserve scarce resources to those who have, first, “greater likelihood of survival and secondly who have more potential years of life. The authorities still hope the guidelines never needed to be applied. This approach is a form of utilitarianism – which aims at maximising the number of lives saved by prioritising for treatment those people who are most likely to benefit from the treatment. This is a gut-wrenching consequence, in a pandemic like this, which the medical authorities say, they cannot help but confront it head on. They say that while emergencies do not call for a suspension of ethics, they do call on them to revisit the priorities – and that will always be horribly uncomfortable. There is also the question of cremation of Corona fatalities, affecting some faith communities such as Jews and Muslims , although WHO guidelines and country level public health guidelines allow either option of burial or cremation. This possibility and reality can be minimised if the governments can be more sensitive to religious sensitivities and also if religious leadership can work in liaison with the authorities to raise awareness among the people to adhere to public health guidelines on social distancing, quarantining and self isolation as well as encouraging them to stay at home as feasibly as possible to reduce the pressure on the health system.
Of course, there are also signs of hope and good sense, in the midst of this crisis. Across the world, there are many examples of the power of the human spirit—of doctors, nurses, activists, the resourceful, and ordinary citizens demonstrating resilience, effectiveness, philanthropy and leadership. That provides hope that men and women around the world can prevail in response to this extraordinary challenge. Taking care of each other is a spiritual exercise. This is the time to be good neighbours. This is the time for us to think about compassion and empathy. This is the spirit that the religion can further promote and where it is strong at, when a miniscule portion of the human race is fighting for a larger share of the pie at the expense of the world’s majority suffering below the poverty line.
As people of faith, our primary concern at this time should be for the victims of the virus, and for the safety of everyone in society. Unfortunately, in some countries, racism is also being used to stigmatize some communities affected by the virus by a biased Media. All human beings are children of God and our prayers must go towards all without any ifs and buts. Some arrogant public statements are being made by some religious fanatics that God is punishing some sections of humanity.This is not true and reveal the unfortunate dark side of the faithful. It’s time for all who have faith in God to accept this pandemic as a trial from God to reflect and make amends at a time when mankind has lost his plot and direction while showing compassion and humility to all, rather than blasphemous arrogance.
World War I, the Great Depression, end of Ottoman Empire, War II, the Fall of the Iron Curtain, September 11! Each of those events triggered changes that altered the world, creating new situations whereby the world everyone returned to after the formative event was not like the world they knew before it. The corona-virus is likely to be remembered as just such an event, changing our lives in a myriad of ways. A permanent mode of crisis can also endanger open societies. In a state of emergency, the course is set for an uncertain post-corona world. As the global economy thus reels and everyday life grinds to a standstill, signs are that a totally different Post- Corona world order is bound to take shape, much different to what is now. Crisis moments also present opportunity. What leaders need beyond this crisis, is not a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. Solidarity between countries and people as well as a readiness to make sacrifices for the common good are decisive.
Thus, in managing such challenges, Religion has a positive role to play in giving leadership to make such a world much equitable and fair, free of prejudice based on race or religion. Something that the five major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam) have in common is a sense of community, which provides group cohesion and identity. Human values are social and ethical norms common to all cultures and societies as well as religions which includes caring for all life, compassion and kindness and generosity and charity as well as peace building, Much of the misery that has come into the world in the name of religion can be avoided by reintroducing these shared values. Let this corona crisis afford an opportunity to reintroduce these shared values.