Exploring some lessons from COVID-19Tuesday, March 24, 2020
While we are amid the global pandemic, COVID-19, with assessments suggesting that it will continue to get worse before it gets better, we have no choice but to learn as we go. The potential lessons fall into several categories ranging from the raw issues of epidemiology, the complex issues of crisis management, the contentious issues of politics, the practical issues of how we prepare for life after the coronavirus — assuming and hoping we will have one — and the psycho-spiritual issues of what it means for us human beings living in a world we did not create, but of which we are stewards. I would like to begin examining some of the foregoing issues, but would like to begin with what I regard as the biggest issue — the psycho-spiritual.
The essentials of life
For me, the broad lesson from this ongoing crisis — a lesson we are prone to quickly forget once the crisis is over, but which we should not forget if we are wise — is that there are some things in life which are essential and some which are not.
The context in which this lesson is being forced upon the entire world is reminiscent of much of what scripture teaches. In one of the many places where this lesson is told, Jesus tells the parable of a man whose crops bore abundantly and who in the face of this abundance was consumed, not with how he may be of help to others, but with how he may store up the produce for his own use. According to the parable, on the said night of his self-absorbed consideration his soul was required of him.
I am also reminded of another lesson in scripture from the book of Daniel, in which Daniel describes the philosophical wisdom with which the king spoke when he regained consciousness after his reign, which was steeped in hubris and arrogance, was interrupted and he lost his mind. In chapter four, of the book, verse 36, the king is reported as saying “[A]ll the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, the most high does what he wishes in the heavens above and the earth beneath, and none can stay his hand or say to him 'what are you doing?'”
At the level or everyday life, prior to the novel coronavirus, many of us operated as though life without the freedom to travel, shop, and go out and have fun was just not liveable. The spread of the coronavirus has taught us that we were living a lie. Prior to the virus some of us made “the office” our definitional standing, and for some going to the physical place called church was what it meant to truly worship. The coronavirus scare has taught us that we can well get on with work and worship without being in the office or the sanctuary.
Notwithstanding the foregoing observations, it is not my argument that God or the higher power has created COVID-19. Rather, my suggestion is that the reality of the virus is forcing us to examine life as we know it. In simplest terms, I think the two takeaways from the pandemic are:
(a) the opportunity to take a look at ourselves, to re-examine our perspectives on life, and to ask ourselves what is this, that, and the other thing really worth, and ultimately to centre our thoughts and energies on the things of lasting value; and
(b) the opportunity to remind ourselves that we are dust and, within the scheme of the universe's grand design, of little worth. In less than one week over 2,000 Italians died. One the first day of a massive number of deaths, 250 people died; four days later, nearly 800 died in a single day. What is life?
Our collective vulnerability and finitude
The world is traversing uncharted waters. No living person has ever witnessed anything like this. There is no telling what the economies of the world will be like when the dust settles. Of course, one hopes that the rates of infections will slow and the death rates will fall. One hopes that the right steps will be taken to protect businesses and the foundations of our economies. But there is no telling who will have jobs or enjoy the same quality of life after the crisis is over. These facts should sober up each one of us and remind us not only of the essentials of life, but of our common vulnerability and humanity. Our collective ignorance about how this may end and what life will look like when it all ends are compelling facts about how finite and impotent we are in the face of the big issues that life can throw at us.
The promise of hope
But as scary of this coronavirus thing is and, despite the scale on which it is decimating some countries, if our focus shifts to responding to it in ways which protect both self and neighbour we stand a great chance of surviving. When the days of social distancing are over, each country's success at picking up the pieces will depend on how well people can hold hands and work together, each guarding self and neighbour.
One of the frightening discoveries the world has made in the wake of this pandemic is that, in 2017, the Donald Trump Administration in the United States disbanded the office which was set up to proactively fight global pandemics. In his narrow “America first” ideology Trump reasoned that the American homeland faced no threat from major diseases and as such that office was not needed. What he has come to discover is that “America first” as an ideology cannot mean “America at the expense of others”. Pandemics, like epidemics, represent national and international security threats, undermine food security, impair the global workforce, and deepen the vulnerabilities facing the planet. Narrow national or self-interest cannot be given precedence over neighbourliness.
It is the rebirth and reawakening of this vital and life-saving consciousness, brought about by the fact that COVID-19 has laid bare our claims to competence, and even covert claims of omnipotence, which represent our greatest hope for the future. For that hope to be realised, we dare not lose sight of the things through which we are now passing when these things have passed. In the words of the wise Psalmist may we say, “Teach us to number our days so we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and senior lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of five books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or email@example.com.
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