What can we learn from this epidemic?
After being in the spotlight of international media coverage for a couple of weeks, the coronavirus outbreak received heightened interest – and caused further worry – when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The response to the WHO’s declaration, or to the outbreak in general, has been mixed: most notably, countries such as the US have tightened borders and barred entry for several travellers.
At first, one might say that such measures – if draconian – are sensible, even necessary, in crises such as this. But I was – positively – surprised to hear the WHO warning that such actions may actually worsen the spread of the disease because it would increase the number of irregular travellers evading security checks by using unofficial points of entry into the country of interest (the WHO suggested improving screening at border crossings, such as airports, instead of an outright ban). Furthermore the WHO – prudently considering the risks and values of globalisation – pointed out that such outright bans may prove deleterious for international medical collaboration and trade to levels which outweigh the possible infectious harm avoided.
Globalisation has profoundly changed the way we see reality and live our lives. Yet, despite the term itself suggesting a certain homogeneity in outlooks, it has given birth to diametrically opposite attitudes and situations across the world: from open arms to xenophobia, cultural evolution to cultural identity crises, affluence to poverty, shared knowledge to systematic misinformation. The ‘roads’ created between us do not allow a selected communication of ‘goods’: everything is exchanged, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Particularly, infectious outbreaks such as this one remind us of the increased vulnerability that comes along with globalisation – what happens on the other side of the planet can become a personal problem almost instantly. And problems need solutions.
We could solve the problem by avoiding it, and burning bridges. Trump’s Wall, Salvini’s “decreto sicurezza” are paradigmatic, and share an ideology which in a way pervades even the closure of borders in this new epidemic. “Tough times call for tough measures” and “there is no room for sentimentality” are phrases which might be used to defend such positions. The Church’s appeal to a moral code, to a ‘basic humanity’ is often met with sneers and contempt, falling prey to counter-arguments rooted in relativism (whether explicitly from ‘agnostic’ points of view or occultly from ‘super-Catholics’ i.e. “my conscience tells me that humanitarian values are not as important as the Church says, and that other values are to be more rigorously defended”).
But the truth isn’t relative. The cold, hard objectivity of time and experience show that “your problem is not my problem” is illogical, even if we cannot agree on calling it ‘morally wrong’. The WHO – hardly a religious organisation – has indeed already predicted the consequences of such measures in the case of this epidemic. It would seem that “your problem is my problem” is a fact of life, and that getting involved in helping one another proactively is the only way forward for everyone.
For a Christian, this principle goes far beyond a simple mutualism: it is a vocation. It is what the Lord calls us to do. It is part of who we are. To neglect this in favour of, for example, a more rigid orthodoxy goes against the Lord’s desires, and is to our own disadvantage in the end (see Matthew 7, 15-23 and Matthew 25, 31-46).
It is also the way to announce Christ to others. Indeed, it is possible that this very “your problem is my problem” may have given rise to a large number of conversions in the Ancient World: in a Roman society which often abandoned its sick and dying, and went further to blame and persecute Christians for the outbreak of an epidemic, how did Carthage’s bishop, St. Cyprian, respond? He called on his flock to care for the sick and bury the dead, accepting the risk of personal contagion on top of the already precarious position of being persecuted Christians. Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity, argues that it may well be that this testimony of compassion and self-exposure in a society where ‘survival of the fittest’ and utilitarianism was practically institutionalised (ring any bells?) could help explain the increased number of conversions to Christianity observed contemporaneously with three outbreaks of plague. St Francis of Assisi is said to have summed it up more succinctly in, “Preach always – use words when necessary”.
So whether we want to protect our own skin, live coherently a basic human compassion or bear testimony to Someone we love, the answer is always the same: love your neighbour as yourself.