OVERCOMING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC AND CREATING THE NEW NORMAL: THE INTERSECTING ROLES OF SCIENTIFIC, HEALTH, RELIGIOUS AND GOVERNMENTAL LEADERSHIP
Emeritus Professor, RMIT University, Melbourne
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia; Deputy Moderator, Religions for Peace Asia
This paper was delivered on October 12th, 2020 to the online International Seminar in Beijing on Multi-Religious Concerted Efforts and Co-operation to Promote Common Well-Being for Human Beings, sponsored by the China Committee for Religions and Peace.
May I begin by thanking again the China Committee for Religions and Peace (CCRP) for this opportunity to reflect on religion and its role in addressing the pandemic emergency and its aftermath. I want to take both Catholic Christian and multifaith perspectives as well as speaking from the experience of my own country of Australia with its 25 million people.
The Differing Mortality Rates
There are hugely differing rates in infection and mortality rates across the nations of the world. The figures in Table One are taken from the respected John Hopkins University Coronavirus Data Center in Baltimore.
Table One: Covid-19 Death Rates (per 100,000 Pop.) for ACRP and Selected Other Countries
Source: John Hopkins University Coronavirus Center, 23rd September 2020.
Assuming the figures are reasonably accurate, it is very clear that the Asian and Pacific countries, in particular the Confucian-heritage countries together with Sri Lanka and Thailand, have had comparably much lower mortality rates than the European and Americas (North and South) countries. The Asian countries were much helped because of their greater previous experience in dealing with the SARS outbreak. My own country of Australia has done reasonably well with the main sources of the infection coming from returning Australians on planes and several cruise ships with the poor policing of the mandatory two-week quarantine period in hotels. The epicenter has been my own city of Melbourne where the infection has, unfortunately, been rampant in aged care homes, especially in those privately owned where profit has outranked care rather than those homes which are state- or faith-sponsored. The overwhelming majority of those who have died have been aged over 70. Australians have adapted well and innovatively to the regulated lockdown in their private houses and apartments, including working from home using ZOOM, Webex, emails, etc..
The Unusual Harmonization of Science, Health, Faith, and Government
The Asian and Pacific countries are largely collectivist and law-abiding peoples in contrast to the poor government leadership and the destructive rampant and excessive individualism of countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. and the Mediterranean-derived cultures of countries like Spain, Chile, and Brazil. Commitment to human solidarity and the common good must reign supreme in the war against the virus. Moreover, the pandemic has seen an unusual harmonization of science, health, faith, and government. In Australia, Australian and State political leaders have closely followed the advice and directives of their chief medical officers well-informed by their epidemiological experts.
The UNESCO Chair in Bioethics has in September 2020 held a series of webinars reflecting on religion during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic under the chairship of Professor Russell D’Souza. It was noted that at the First Parliament of the World’s Religions held in 1893 in Chicago the star was Swami Vivekananda, the great Indian spiritual leader, who believed that religious leaders had a role to play at the frontline, especially in reflecting their faith in providing solace and comfort. Part of this in today’s world is working in cohesion with science and scientists.
Hinduism strongly attests to the relationship between spirituality and science, particularly to psychology and neuroscience, as well as assisting the process of recovery and resilience. According to the Hindu Scriptures, the Upanishads, and the Bhagvad Gita, there are three paths in understanding ourselves in the science of the self and the path to self-knowledge in achieving an I-WE mode of thinking. These are (1) the path of knowledge or the path of cognition that assists us in having an accurate knowledge of ourselves and our situation, (2) the path of selfless action (Karma Yoga), and (3) meditation or reflective mindfulness. The WE mode is designed to protect ourselves and others in the move towards selfless actions in the face of consequences. It provides us with a moral compass. This framework applies to each Hindu tradition as they all emphasize the unity of body and mind for healthy living and in the building of resilience, including the strengthening of the immune system.
Professor Deepali Bhanot of the Department of Sanskrit Studies at the University of Delhi addressed the question: how can religion help in the present epidemic? She responded that religion plays an important role in the present situation. “As Hindus, we look to prayer to the Almighty as an effective tool that provides solace and mental peace. As congregating in the temple for collective worship and sermons by the priest (satsang) is not possible at present, with an altar in each home praying together with the family is possible. Virtual worship services also keep people connected. Keeping ourselves healthy is also a duty at the moment. As a religious community, we are expected to reach out to distressed relatives, domestic workers, and reaching out to vulnerable members of the society”. During this pandemic which has taken a toll on the social and economic life of people, especially on a large number of migrant workers, in India community kitchens have been set up under the care of the religious communities. Religious communities are also providing medical help and medicines to the needy. Hindu gurus have been giving virtual talks to combat mental stress. She said that at the time of the various religious festivals people used to get together for community worship and celebrations. But as this is not possible due to this pandemic, it has not deterred the people from enjoying the festivals as they are celebrating these at home with their families and sharing the joy with others virtually.
Religion also helps people to cope with grief and the sense of loss during bereavement. Due to the pandemic, the last rites of cremation or burial of Corona patients has become a challenge in India. Although death is seen as an “a passing over” of the soul from the mortal body, the last rites of cremation or burning the body on the funeral pyre is very important. Religion helps people in getting over the trauma through virtual services.
Buddhism, its Religious Leaders, and Faith Communities
Rev. Dr. Masaki Matsubara, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, has related how he was in New York in April living with infected workers. Outside the hospitals, there were trucks ready to take away the many bodies. “Every day it was terrifying for me. I made my life as simple as possible in fear of the pandemic”. From a Buddhist perspective, it was very important to take action and to act for the benefit of others. This meant that people are to be compassionate but also another moral imperative is self-care. Taking preventive action is a necessity. Emotional distancing is not the same as physical distancing. Also important are harmony, respect, empathy, and compassion. In Buddhism, nothing can exist on its own. Buddhists need to speak up from their moral consciousness and rehabilitate the moral ground. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths are concerned with suffering and its overcoming. Such truths feed into the medical sciences in establishing a path to ending the pandemic as enunciated in the Fourth Truth about the eightfold path to the cessation of suffering. Science can help with its many theories. Buddhism speaks a lot about the interconnectedness of life and creating the right conditions for the disappearance of the virus. The virus is impacting upon mental health, domestic violence, and so on. The emptiness that is widely felt must be fought through non-action because staying at home is helping others.
Islam, its Religious Leaders, and Faith Communities
During the UNESCO webinar, Professor Din Syamsuddin, Chair of the Indonesian Conference on Religions for Peace and Moderator of Religions for Peace Asia, spoke of the Islamic perspective through the decisions of the Indonesian Ulama Council, saying that there is no contradiction between Islam and science and highlighted the relevance of Islamic teaching in regard to the pandemic. The pandemic is seen both as a disaster and a test from the Creator. We need to be patient and re-orientate ourselves to God, and not have a secularist outlook. This is what gives psychological support according to the Muslim perspective. Cleanliness is a central concept of Islam and it has been a blessing in disguise. Nine fatwas had been issued by the Indonesian Uluma to prevent re-infection. Friday prayers in the mosque have been stopped since the prayers can be done in the home. In the ablutions before prayer, it is required to wash the nose with water. Recommendations have been made to the Indonesian Government, and advice has been based on the philosophy of Avicenna (Ibn Sina 980-1037). With regard to the major festivals, these could be celebrated at home. And this year’s hajj to Mecca has been celebrated in a very reduced form.
Catholic Christianity and the Pandemic
Early on the leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics, Pope Francis sent a message through the iconic photograph of himself on Easter Sunday at the end of the Midnight Mass early in the morning giving his Easter blessing with no one in St. Peter’s Square. He cut a lonely figure but this image transmitted globally sent a very clear message to Catholics that government regulations (in this case, those of Italy) were to be followed. In his weekly audiences, he has very regularly spoken of the pandemic.
It is NOT God’s judgment on a wicked world but a call to live differently and more simply with prayer and service. The Pope has written, “The pandemic storm had made most people realize that we are all in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented. Our vulnerability has uncovered our false certainties. It is the time to decide to live differently, to live better, to love more, and to care more”. More recently, His Holiness has said, “On the one hand, it is imperative to find a cure for a small but terrible virus which is bringing the whole world to its knees. On the other hand, we must cure a greater virus, that of social injustice, inequality of opportunity, marginalization, and the lack of protection of the weakest”. He has also linked the virus to the lack of care of creation, our common home, and he has continued to call for debt reduction, even debt forgiveness for the poorer nations. Pope Francis thinks the pandemic is ’the harbinger of future crises’.
Local Catholic parish communities across the world have been following government directives, and live streaming Masses, and closing Catholic schools to deliver homeschooling. As with other faith communities, hundreds of bishops, priests, and nuns have died, not least in Italy. Religious income had been seriously impacted, and global religious welfare services such as Caritas and the St. Vincent de Paul Society were being severely stretched.
Regarding Catholicism and science, it must be stressed that they are not at war though the relationship has had a troubled history with the Galileo saga and the evolution debate. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had spoken of the “rightful independence of science”. The Church’s message to the scientists was ‘Get on with it and find a cure!’. But please observe ethical norms with proper testing without taking short cuts and made sure of the universal availability of any vaccine.
Lastly, in my perspective as a Christian theologian, the importance of adaptation, hope, and resilience are among the greatest human resources in the cultivation of our own spiritual and psychological health. No one can live without hope. Christian hope includes the embracing of the known and the unknowable. For in the present are the seeds of a new normal and a new future, and we must hope in the Divine’s ability to draw good out of the suffering of the present. Christian resilience is based on recovery with the ability to bounce back and on sustainability with the ability to keep going under stress. Hence, a definite purpose in life was absolutely key in having the required cognitive and spiritual fitness. During the pandemic whilst in lockdown, many people have asked the question: what is the purpose of life?
The Interfaith Perspective
It is also necessary to examine the pandemic from an interfaith perspective. The situation had highlighted that the right to religious freedom was a relative and not an absolute right, and so the State had correctly closed religious places of worship. Research had shown that 84 percent of the world’s population believed strongly or very strongly in a religious faith. Research also shows that on balance religion adds to the social capital of a nation. Religion and spirituality are concerned with the fundamental values of love, care, hope, and interconnectedness, and the strength of faith communities was their grassroots connectedness and their interface with government leaders and authorities. Governments need to mobilize faith communities because they can be immensely valuable during a pandemic but governments have not been adept at co-ordinating religious groups.
It is necessary to draw attention to the work of Religions for Peace International (www.rfp.org) and its online Multi-religious C-19 Hub with its six Strategic Priorities and eight Calls to Action, working in partnership with UNICEF. More recently, it has published its New Guidance: Practising Our Faith in a Pandemic focused around three elements: (1) Adapting how we gather, pray and practice rituals, (2) Communicating to end misinformation, discrimination and to instill hope, and (3) Helping people who are at risk. It is incumbent on religious leaders to combat wrong and dangerous ideas such as The pandemic is God’s punishment on a wicked world and Because I am a good Christian or a good Muslim, God will not allow myself to be infected. It was also critical faith leaders combatted stigmatization and quelled false rumors.
In conclusion, religious leaders and their communities have been generally following the various government directives. And these have usually been based on scientific and health advice, and religious communities have been adept in providing online religious services to their members required to stay at home. They have also been at the front line in providing health and welfare care.
At the same time, religious leaders have also pointed to a new future that must be very different from the past in living, loving, and caring better. At the heart of this is to combat the other global viruses of social injustice, inequalities in financial well-being and in educational and social opportunities, violence against women and children, and the lack of care for the Earth, our common home. This must be our new normal, our new future.