Learnings from a crisis in the time of COVID-19

Learnings from a crisis in the time of COVID-19

Some of the expected first and second order effects of the pandemic on SDGs implementation (Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID 19, UN, March 2020)

Pedro Walpole SJ

In these days of crisis, of isolation and distancing, of daily newsfeeds on growing local to global coronavirus cases, it is a challenge to keep a broader human sensitivity and open vision.

We are in a devastating storm and Pope Francis’ prayer and reflection addressed to the city and to the world (Urbi et orbi) in that great outdoor space on the steps of the “place that tells of Saint Peter’s rock-solid faith,” was cosmic.

Embracing the world, he asked questions that the evenings of this storm are bringing about: How did we get here? Where are we going? Who are we? Can we not tip the balance and move from fear to faith? Do we not, in our own little way, care and keep that flame burning? What are our experiences of community these days? Can the local sense of community inspire us to share a greater trust globally?

Today the first greeting on the pathway or in social communications is: “How are you?” referring to how COVID-19 and the lockdown are affecting us of course. And we listen to stories unfold. Individuals or family members and the broader community are coping and beginning to learn anew. The condition of the unemployed, as an already deep and now expanding margin, is calling for compassionate action and they are not to be forgotten again by returning to economic efficiency and growth. The national situation is often bemoaned. Discussions form around interconnected concerns and around gaps in our collective way of living, calling for conversion.

Compassion and action are finding new expressions in a humbler and more caring world. Few of us reading this are frontliners. We may be trying to prepare facial masks and other protective equipment or distributing food. For many, the best we can do is to stay at home and continue to communicate the stories of hope we find. Listening to each other’s lives in this crisis deepens life’s meaning as we share in faith and hope.

Father General Arturo Sosa recently spoke on how the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) are the interconnectedness and collaboration of all ministries as we respond to COVID-19, noting that injustice is the greater virus.

The present lockdown is acknowledged under obedience, we cannot just rush out to be do-gooders without checking reality and capacity. Fear or fight are not good counsellors, there is often a re-learning with faith and a re-tasking with trust that happens in community. Extended lockdowns require us to grow in patience, humility, simplicity, and commitment.

Where we need to focus is after the lockdown which is the next phase. We need to commit and not to forget this time of conversion. We may immediately have to go back to work or studies but let us not forget the conversion in our lives to grow with greater inclusion, to heal and have faith, to trust and share a different vision for our world in action.


How did we get here?

We learn difficult things only by experience and the gaps in reason cannot be bridged by words alone. Experience brings us together in humility, healing, and reconciliation, so together we can move forward. In the last 30 years of storms in the Philippines, each community has had to learn for itself what safety is and how it is possible to act as one. From tropical storm Thelma in 1991 (in Ormoc, Leyte) to typhoon Haiyan in 2013 (in Tacloban, Leyte), the disaster risk reduction and management cycle of five phases has its parallels with any crisis.

There is the ordinary time or business as usual (BAU) when we are free to act and make a difference, but generally don’t. Then there is the inevitability of a storm hitting and we have a short time to get everything together, connect with those we need, secure the home or evacuate. It’s always too short to make the real difference and avoid a disaster that impacts on the poor. No city seems to learn this the first time around; reality is greater than any idea of what disaster can be. Then the storm hits, and we have a lockdown. We don’t go out in the middle of the storm; we stay under cover unless essential. After this, locating and enabling communities to get back on their feet – being community – is the struggle of recovery. This is followed by a further phase of building back better (BBB). This lasts at best three years, when broader society has already gone back to BAU.

This is the nature of human nature – where nature strikes and faith calls us to be more integral, to give more and take less in life as we rebuild.

“We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick”. (Pope Francis, Urbi et orbi)

Where are we going?

We are going to listen to the medical profession and scientists more than politicians in the future. But we tend to forget scientists and doctors when they don’t make us feel comfortable. Politicians are only as good as the populace who shares concerns and daily living with equity. Often though, we want to move ahead and are never satisfied with what we have and see less of what the other needs. We fail to see the economics of war or injustices of exploitation. Political justifications are circular and do not bother us as we “can’t do anything about it anyway.”

Will we now live by what we have learned? Is there a conversion in our lives where we have bridged the old dividing arguments and understand the inclusion of the poor and the land, and the forgotten biggest margins of our oceans? Where are we going to be when the next water disaster hits a region of the world this year – for how long will this be part of our concern? How can we keep this dialogue responsive before the economy of efficiency takes over?

Zoonoses: Blurred lines of emergent disease and ecosystem health (UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern)

To truly know where we are going, we have to know who we are and keep in our hearts and in our communion with one another that we are humbled in faith and are always seeking healing.

“In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility.” (Urbi et orbi)

Understanding the sorts of diseases that come from other animals and threaten us is understanding what we do with our very environment and the impact we have on animal populations and their needed space. Most infectious diseases reflect areas where poverty and the environment have lost the balance – an imbalance of inequality and exclusion driven by an extractive economy. Climate disasters and their acute local costs are global, part of an economic chronic disease where we don’t want to make the change and address climate change.

Who are we and can we not tip the balance with faith and flame?

We are forever a broken people, always in need of reconciliation, always needing to build an inclusive society often overlaid by economic priorities and consumption. Social and economic impacts are already being felt and are certain to be long-term. Several governments and even the European Union are planning financial packages. Millions have filed for unemployment status in the US and those who earn a living on day-to-day basis financially are struggling, while market closure afflict others as in Africa. Global food security is at risk and hunger is becoming a growing reality for many. It also doesn’t help that in some areas like Brazil, the threat of the virus continues to be downplayed.

But it is also a time for the Spirit to guide those sharing in community. At this time of lockdown, we learn patience in suffering so we may partake in the resurrection. This is part of the mystery of faith we are called to renew.

“You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing… It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people … (Urbi et orbi)

What are our experiences of community these days?

The cry of the poor and the cry of the earth have been ringing a long time. COP26 is postponed, while the current pandemic allows an opportunity for change in the oil industry.

It does not adequately register with political leadership, but climate change and the spread of diseases are clearly linkedSome reports lay it out well but unless we are willing to carry that internal conversion into the world as a joint mission, we will not on our own be able to bridge the gap of the present acute crisis of coronavirus and the chronic and prolonged climate crisis. The present acute health crisis is inseparable from the ongoing chronic crisis in food, water, economies, human rights, migrants, refugees and extreme climate events.

We are also seeing stories of hope and social action emerge. In India, communities are working with local government officials to respond to the needs of the poor. There is massive migration ongoing because of the lockdown imposed and many are without food or shelter. Globally, the youth are also acting on multiple levels online, often through volunteer groups. Social media and communication are taking on new dynamics as people have more time to interact. We are seeing many shifts in public policy and politics propelled by social media discourse. A number of Christian and faith-based institutions are also engaging with the marginalized coming together in solidarity and many stories are shared in #CovidAction.

How can the local inspire greater trust in the global?

The cry of the poor – the migrants and those without work, the small farmers and those on the land no longer naturally sustaining – intensifies the cry of the land. We are at a time when fear challenges faith; a time of choosing. Yet humbly we beseech the Lord “may we all be one.”

“You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” (Urbi et orbi)

In the small village where I live, peace is shared as the greatest gift. Peace is assumed by most people much of the time, except where the 30+ conflicts in the world generally play into the economic opportunities of the time. Yet peace is the most basic, along with water and food. Peace and companionship with friends and with Jesus is the daily bread and wine of community. In these troubled times, we need peace in our hearts that is shared with a comforting smile, overtaking all that is lacking, and peace in our environs shining forth with the youth as hope.

Querida Amazonia, following on from Laudato Si’ highlights the cultural closeness to the land and life: the social and ecclesial dreams of interconnectivity. The recent document of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Aqua fons vitae-Orientations on Water:  symbol of the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth broadens the challenges for all and needs internalization and  collaboration for the long term.

Caught between global powers with limited leadership, one of the few global institutions we have to build trust in is the UN and their new report Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 gives us a renewed start and how we need to take a collective effort more seriously.

“The most vulnerable, including women, children, the elderly, and informal workers, will be hit the hardest. The impact on the environment, on the other hand, is likely to be positive on the short term, as the drastic reduction in economic activity brought about by the crisis has reduced CO2 emissions and pollution in many areas. Such improvements are destined to be short-lived, unless countries deliver on their commitment to sustainable development once the crisis is over and the global economy restarts.” (UN, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity)

We are all in the same boat, that is what a crisis teaches us; humanity needs to be one to survive. What worth are our personal wealth and possessions if we are not reconciled with others, if we cannot, in humility while facing death, acknowledge in faith (with all the doubts) the other? Do we find Jesus amongst us and can we love anew, find peace in the storm and embrace the cross with hope, with care, and with trust? Will we “not be afraid” in this crisis and join with others in the mission and in finding anew the meaning of our lives?

When seeking to clarify thoughts, I often respond by walking outside under the sky as this alters my reality and deepens my vision. These days of crisis are no different; to understand my feelings and responses to others, my connections and disconnections, I want to walk under the sky and know my Creator loves me.


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