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A far more serious disease than coronavirus

The coronavirus has now spread to all continents and, in response, nations are issuing travel restrictions or placing entire cities on lockdown in an effort to contain the pandemic. Sarah-Leah Pimentel reflects on the positive reaction of governments but expresses concern and sadness at the way in which public panic has revealed unbridled levels of selfishness, even within religious circles.

Two things happen in a crisis. People pull together and find creative solutions to a difficult situation. Or else they tear at each other like a pack of wolves, because only one thing matters: individual survival.

The past few weeks have seen both of these scenarios playing out.

The value of human life

On a global scale, it is a sign of hope that governments (mostly) appear to be working together to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Countries are using what means they have to set up testing, isolation, and treatment facilities. Where some nations may be lacking in logistical infrastructure, they are cooperating with their neighbours to ensure increased monitoring and screening at border points, pooling efforts to fly their citizens home from China, and implementing regional testing centres.

We live in a globalised world. Solutions to a global crisis must be made jointly. If nations work together, we all stand a better chance of staying healthy, of slowing the spread of a disease that is brutal in its speed and the effect on those with compromised immunity.

The nations of the world agree that the protection of human lives is the paramount value.

I would even go so far as to say that this international health emergency has put the most important thing into stark perspective for the nations of the world. We may disagree on ideology, we may disagree on economic models, we may disagree on any number of things. But in this instance, the nations of the world agree that the protection of human lives is the paramount value, even above economic gain as trade grinds to a halt and stock markets go into freefall. Even talk of wars and conflicts seems to have been pushed to the backburner. Governments have chosen to present a united front to fight this disease. This is something to celebrate.

Survival of the fittest or the holiest?

Unfortunately, in contrast, a large group of people have chosen the Hobbesian response to the crisis where all that matters is personal survival. Just by way of example, we have witnessed toilet paper wars in supermarkets and the mass hoarding of food and personal cleaning products. We have seen disgusting expressions of racism and xenophobia towards perceived carriers of the disease.

This crisis has also revealed an alarming lack of charity, and most sadly so, within religious circles. As Catholic dioceses throughout the world issued directives on how to continue to hold public worship but do whatever they could to keep people safe, church groups and social media communities very quickly became divided.

One group understood the spirit of the measures and welcomed that the Church had considered the scientific evidence about the coronavirus and had reflected on which of its rituals and traditions could become conduits for the virus. Even if it brought sadness, many recognized that it is good to refrain from shaking hands, it is good to limit opportunities for contagion during the administration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The other camp, sadly, saw a new threat: not of contagion but of faithlessness. They accused the Church authorities of poor leadership by exhibiting what they considered to be a lack of faith. They felt that the traditions of the Church had been disregarded and that receiving communion on the hands (for a time) is a disrespect to the Body of Christ. The death knell for this group was to hear that the bishops in some dioceses had given their parishioners permission to not attend Mass if they were sick, to prevent contaminating others. What kind of Church encourages people to commit a mortal sin, they asked?

The other camp, sadly, saw a new threat: not of contagion but of faithlessness.

Far more alarmingly, this same group felt that prayer alone would save the faithful from contamination, or adopted an even more fatalistic view — that if they became ill or died, it was the will of God.

This is nothing more than a distorted version of the Hobbesian “survival of the fittest” mentality. It is a mode of thinking that (even if it does not say it, it nevertheless conveys it) that goes as follows: if you do not believe that God will save you, then perhaps it is good that you should become ill or die. Those who remain are stainless purists upon whom God’s favour rests.

If truth be told, I found this kind of thinking to be far more sick and depraved than the toilet paper wars.

Science and faith both have a place in fighting disease

Ultimately, there is science and there is faith. They are not mutually exclusive. Science tells us what practical measures we can take to keep ourselves safe from illness.

Faith fills us with courage, trust, and peace in the midst of chaos and crisis that allows us to show compassion to others and to accompany their (and our own) suffering in a spirit of prayer and selflessness. Faith helps us to recognise that this disease can only be contained by working together, by helping one another and turning away from selfishness.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Sarah-Leah Pimentel
Sarah-Leah is Johannesburg-born and raised but now lives and is inspired by the ocean in Cape Town. A former teacher and current open source media analyst and translator, she has worked in the field of open source media monitoring for the last ten years. Sarah-Leah is about to take a leap of faith in teaming up with some great minds to start a new company that provides open source intelligence to public and private entities to assist them in monitoring and responding to political and security risks. Born and raised a Catholic, the Church's social teaching is both a challenge and inspiration to her. She also writes a monthly column in The Southern Cross.

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