Fr John Webootsa MCCJ
The coronavirus pandemic highlights in a striking way our vulnerability as humans, what we have in common with each other and with other creatures. For a very long time we are suffering a common pandemic as a human family. No human, no creature is excluded from this situation. However, this situation is a wake-up call to preserve and celebrate every part of our common home.
Laudato Si’ is dated 24 May 2015 and published on 18 June 2015. So this year we are marking the 5thanniversary of this Encyclical. As we mark with gratitude this anniversary, we are also witnessing events around the world that provoke panic, horror and anxiety. We are witnessing the suffering and death of so many human beings all over the world at a rate never thought of for a very long time.
One can see something good in this situation. Stopping or drastically reducing flying and other activities has literally made our air better. It can serve to clean up our air. But on the other side, this situation subjects vulnerable, poor communities around the world to a loss of their economic foothold as an indirect result of Covid-19. The very factors that lead to the improvement of the environment such as reducing carbon emitting activities, also open up other threats to the means of addressing basic human need. It shows how entangled our lives are and how extremely complicated it is to try and solve threats to our common home.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis points out our interconnectedness with the species that we encounter daily and also with myriad creatures of the biological world of which we are part. Interestingly, COVID-19 is zoonotic – it has jumped across a species boundary; a negative interconnection. Some scientists say it comes from bats, others from snakes, possibly through a mammalian intermediary like Malayan pangolins.
Much of the public ethical discussion about COVID-19 is about issues of justice. The unequal access to healthcare, testing, and personal protective equipment are largely determined by the economic possibilities of one – either as a nation or as an individual. Political experimentation costs lives. The most vulnerable suffer directly from this disease, but the economic and social impacts cut across the globe. It knows no class. Short of finding a cure or vaccine, social distancing or isolation is the only possible way forward. We are asked to remain at a distance. We are subjected to the pain of being absent from those we love or even gather in communion for burial of the dead. Dying alone or with masked caregivers is not the kind of death anyone would wish for.
This pain points us to what we share in common as a human family. It is deeply disturbing to be denied the possibility of socializing. But we have no other choice. As Pope Francis points out in Laudato Si’, human relationships cannot be substituted by anything least of all technology. When technology replaces social bonds, it stops being at the service of the common good. It serves individual needs and interests. Now we find ourselves in a strange land. In spite of familiarity, we cannot even properly weep and mourn with others. Important events that used to physically bring us together such as daily Masses and the Eucharistic communion, have become virtual. What could be the spiritual lessons from this situation? Can we still sing a song of praise?
There can be no greater way to counter the anxiety that this situation brings than gratitude. The voices that daily sing the Divine Office, that offer daily Masses in thanksgiving, that offer hope and encouragement to the suffering are the best counter to this sad situation brought about by COVID-19. One great thing of being grateful for is that COVID-19 has a relatively low death rate compared with many other parasitic relationships.
We need to consider those millions of microorganisms living within us that help us stay healthy and live long lives. They are our allies. Not all microorganisms are parasitic; some are mutualistic. Further, let us consider those other living species who share our common home, and celebrate and protect the life and health that they and we have, while we have it. We should reflect, protect and celebrate life in our common home.
Even as we mourn the departed, let’s not let anxiety overwhelm us those who remain alive. This virus is a newcomer to our home. Let us not allow it to disrupt the harmony that we keep building each day with the rest of the organisms and creatures. Let us defeat the anxiety, look beyond our human situation and reflect that the flowers, birds, trees and other living creatures around us even in an urban environment are not in lockdown. Let’s keep listening to the birdsong. Their praises cannot be stamped out, in spite of our mortality and disease. Let’s not suppress the Christian hopeful message of Easter. God’s grace is continuously at work in unselfish acts of self-emptying, love and sacrifice even in the midst of the pandemic.
There are no evil creatures in the world because God created everything good. Creatures are made evil by their actions but are not intrinsically evil. So we can say there is nothing explicitly evil about COVID-19. It is doing what it is made to do: multiply in its hosts, keeping many alive to pass it on to new hosts. It does not ‘intend’ to kill. Rather like climate change, it is portrayed as a horrendous ‘natural evil’, but its impact is a consequence of our daily decisions and relationships, many of which may seem innocuous but have devastating consequences to other innocent parties.
I end by quoting Professor Celia Deane-Drummond: “COVID-19 is teaching the human race important lessons that it first learnt in the crucible of its early emergence in deep time. Our lives are entangled with each other and with other species and this is the source of both our unique strength but also our vulnerability. We will best honour those who have suffered and died by learning to take our interconnectedness with God, each other, and other creatures much more seriously. Further, even the deepest and darkest suffering is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy and grace, thus providing an occasion for change and renewal.”
Father John Webootsa MCCJ is a Comboni missionary who worked for many years on improving the living conditions of slum dwellers in Korogocho, one of the largest slum neighbourhoods in Nairobi, Kenya. His reflection piece was narrated by Ms Violet Wainaina during an online Ecojesuit meeting on ecology and COVID-19 on 7 May 2020 with the Justice and Ecology Office (JEO) of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar through its Director, Fr Charles Chilufya SJ. Ms Wainaina is the JEO Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer.