Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Covid 19, the New Normal, and Eco-Spirituality

It is now six months (end of August 2020) since Covid 19 was declared a viral pandemic of a highly contagious nature. Meanwhile, almost 22 million people have been infected, of whom 800,000 have lost their lives. While governments have been striving to maintain a modicum of normalcy, in truth, the entire world is undergoing an extensive breakdown. And the recovery will not be easy – even if a vaccine soon comes our way. 

As various countries emerged out of lockdown, and a vaccine seemed several months away, echoes of a “new normal” began to surface. The chief elements included social distancing, respiratory hygiene, handwashing with soap, reduced numbers for indoor gatherings and outdoor events; working from home where possible, travel restrictions.

A new vulnerability also came to the fore which, to date, has been poorly researched or documented. Millions have lost their jobs and face long-term unemployment; millions are plunged into financial debt with no immediate resolution in sight; Western governments borrowed to bolster vulnerable workers, the repayment of which will incur financial hardship in a short few years; many of those who contracted the virus have experienced several side-effects; the emotional toll of grief, pain, and loss is more widespread than we think. 

So, what is the new normal, or is it just another catchy slogan largely devoid of substance ?

Missed Opportunities

Covid 19 is a virus presenting a range of cultural challenges which have been either underestimated or overlooked. The “new normal” it could have delivered has been overtaken by the old normal, and we, the human species, are left in a dilemma much more dangerous than most people realize. We have missed opportunities to change our ways – and our values. One wonders how many more pandemics will it take to wake us up to reality. 

1. Spillover. Ever since the first recorded cases in China, which likely originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, we evidenced a spread of a virus along a trajectory that is well understood, first documented by the American scientist, David Quammen, in his 2012 book, Spillover. When we humans treat other creatures – animals, mammals, birds, etc. – as mere objects for our benefit and usufruct, we often end up undermining our own health and integrity. We have seen it with AIDS/HIV, MERS, SARS, and Ebola. 
And yet we cling on to the old normal! When are we going to wake up and treat these other organisms as companions of earth’s ecosystem, and not mere objects for our human benefit? 

2. Exploitation. Already in this year of 2020, over 100 scientific papers document the deleterious effects of our human exploitation of natural resources, particularly forests and wet-lands. In the words of the Indian physicist cum anti-globalization activist, Vandana Shiva: “Science is informing us that as we invade forest ecosystems, destroy the homes of species and manipulate plants and animals for profits, we create conditions for new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged. It is well documented that around 70% of the human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS, emerge when forest ecosystems are invaded and viruses jump from animals to humans.”

Once again, we the exploiters, end up being among the greatest victims of our own ravaging of nature’s biodiversity and its benefits for us. 

3. Socio-Economics. On Easter Sunday, 2020, Pope Francis delivered this message: “Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you have no steady income to get you through this hard time! This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.” 

Businesses, small and large, have been decimated by Covid 19. In the face of such a crisis our capitalistic monetary system is shown to be a very weak buffer in the face of meltdown and economic hardship. The time is long overdue to employ an alternative economic system more promising for equality, mutuality, and empowerment. Economists have long known of the universal basic wage. Colluding with governments they have failed to champion its possibility because of the radical equality and the mutual empowerment that would ensue. 

4. Work Ethic. As Covid19 spread around the world, millions began working from home, ensuring that employment was upheld and livelihoods safeguarded. There were ensuing benefits for the natural world as motor-based pollution decreased significantly. People also developed new strategies for computer-based communication, via Skype and Zoom. Additionally, for some parents it provided enriched quality time for each other and with their children. 
With the initial enthusiasm wearing thin, employers seem to be favouring blending work practices, perhaps of the combination of 50% from home and the rest in the traditional workplace. Initial research indicates that motivation and productivity rate higher through the mutual interaction of the workers on site. Nonetheless, working-from-home is likely to become the favoured option from here on. In this area, a “new normal” seems to be emerging.

5. Immunity. It has long been known that the sturdiest defence against any virus is a strong immune system, much more important than hand-washing or social distancing. Essentially, we build up our immunity resistance by wholesome diet, daily exposure to nature’s nurturance, healthy exercise, fulfilling relationships, empowering work, good stress management, avoidance of toxins (e.g., smoking). Additionally, a medical practitioner who adopts a holistic approach can be an invaluable resource. 

Faced with Covid 19, we rarely heard advice on nourishing or boosting human immunity (even from the WHO). From the start, a vaccine was the one and only proposed solution. One wonders how much commercial and financial pressure is at work here as pharmaceutical companies compete fiercely to be the first to deliver, and through commercialized advertising distract us from our more basic responsibilities around health and well-being. 

A vaccine is an old normal in a world where ever more drugs are needed to keep us healthy and alive. In several cases, antibiotics don’t work anymore. A vaccine is a short-term – and short-sighted - solution, not a long-term hope. Empowering humans to build up immunity – their own and that of all others – by living more in harmony with the earth itself, offers a more hopeful and empowering future.

Has religion anything to contribute?

During the pandemic all major religious buildings were closed and services were transmitted virtually. The services were delivered according to standard rites, using traditional language and rituals. For the greater part, these services appealed to those of devotional disposition and helped to relieve anguish and loneliness. Moreover, such alternatives to Church-going had little impact on most people, nor did people feel guilty because they could not attend Church. Religion was extensively side-lined and seemed at a loss to offer a new normal. 

Consider the following statement as an invitation to a new religious normal: “To understand the human person theologically, we must learn to begin anew and love the dust that we are. The implications of that starting point are humbling, for they unsettle classical conceptions of human separatism and speciesism that we as humans have fabricated to distance ourselves from the rest of the community of creation. . . . A renewed personhood emerges, one that is not threatened by our creaturliness or insecure about our animality. Rather, these truths of our existence as creatures of God form the foundation of all that follows in our Christian theological anthropology.” (American theologian, Daniel P. Horan).

This theological vision embraces a “new normal,” vividly reminding us humans that we are Earthlings, first and foremost, that God created us as Earthlings, and seeks our collaboration and creativity at that level. Only when we reclaim a more integrated relationship with the earth itself, respecting its creative dynamics, and working harmoniously with all other beings that share the web of life with us, do we stand any chance of living healthily. Without such an organic, earth-based adjustment, all the vaccines on earth are not likely to bring long-term healing and wholeness. 
(Letter of Pope Francis)

Diarmuid O'Murchu