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Buddhistdoor View: Steady as She Goes – Compassionate Responses to Global Panics

A family crosses a street in empty downtown Shanghai. From
A family crosses a street in empty downtown Shanghai. From

The international spread of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has thrown a new element of instability into the global economy, wreaking havoc on international events (there is a real possibility that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo may be canceled), and has the potential to disrupt international and domestic politics, including the upcoming US presidential election. The outbreak—now officially classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization—as of 13 March had (according to official data) taken the lives of almost 5,000 people, infected more than 130,000, and has seen entire cities locked down. Naturally, this raises many questions about good governance and social cohesion, and how both relate to civic responses and global panics.

And panic there is now that the coronavirus, having ravaged China and taken in excess of 3,000 lives, has spread to the rest of the world. In South Korea, fatalities have reached 66; the US has so far recorded 36 deaths; in Europe, Italy has reported 1,016 deaths; while in the Middle East, Iran has an official death toll of 429. All of this is supplying social media with dramatic stories of panic-buying of toilet rolls and other staple househols supplies.

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to contain COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is that there is no pre-existing immunity. Specialists and experts are comparing the containment strategies of many countries. Government-led initiatives are of course the most important, and as governments are tested to their limits as to the effectiveness and speed of their responses, there will be many debates about the desirability of deploying methods that seem tosignificantly limit the spread of the virus. What worked in China might not work elsewhere, and vice versa. 

As Emma Varvaloucas, who was in China during the outbreak in January, writes in Tricycle: “I was amazed to see how quickly an entire country shut down. I suppose it is just that easy, more of a non-action than something being done. Don’t show up at work. Don’t attend school. Don’t go anywhere, don’t do anything. Still, it was astonishing to one day see the hustle and bustle of a normally functioning city, and the next have all that activity cease at once, as if magicked away.” (Tricycle)

On the ground, private organizations have their own part to play. We can contrast the various ways in which religious organizations within South Korea have behaved. One of the most notorious examples is how the fringe Christian church group Shincheonji played a key role in the speed at which the virus has spread throughout the country. According to the BBC, about 60 per cent of the country’s more than 4,000 confirmed cases [at the time of the report] were sect members, who “are believed to have infected one another and then traveled around the country, apparently undetected.” The leader of the sect, Lee Man-hee, gave a public apology, and public prosecutors are considering suing him for gross negligence. (BBC News)

In contrast, an influential Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism (CCKB), an affiliate of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, has suspended its Templestay program in response to the sharp uptick in cases. Buddhistdoor Global has also reported that other Buddhist organizations in Korea have canceled public gatherings, events, and services. Mountain temples have also been temporarily closed to the public. The Jogye Order has ordered temples across the country to cancel large group events. Indeed, Buddhist organizations across the world have responded in a relatively consistent and conservative manner, moving quickly to cancel events or postpone them indefinitely.

We cannot account for human selfishness, irrationality, or error, which is present in all societies. However, the history of pandemics demonstrates that infrastructure has always been crucial to response and recovery. Not only technological and governmental, but civic, social, and cultural infrastructure. Among these “hard” factors are “soft” ones that are harder to quantify, such as kindness and social concern. The journal Scientific American points out: “As a species, we live and die by our social world and our extensive infrastructure—and there is no predicting what anybody needs in the face of total catastrophe. In contrast, the real crisis scenarios we’re likely to encounter require cooperation and, crucially, ‘flattening the curve’ of the crisis exactly so the more vulnerable can fare better, so that our infrastructure will be less stressed at any one time.” (Scientific American) The more we care about others, the more our responses to the coronavirus outbreak and similar emergencies will include others beyond our immediate family and friends.

Societies are complex collectives of different interests and constituencies, and they must respond collectively to avert panics, which make pandemics worse. Only a civic-minded approach to disaster—similar to the Chinese response to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake or the Japanese reaction to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami—can mass mobilize and minimize catastrophic events of a national or continental scale.

In an excerpt from Australian philosopher Toby Ord’s book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, the author warns that future outbreaks on the scale of the coronavirus may strike at any time and from any source, including biological warfare or even innocent but dangerous research by well-meaning scientists. Ord also writes: “The problem is not so much an excess of technology as a lack of wisdom. . . . The very fact that these risks stem from human action shows us that human action can address them. Defeatism would be both unwarranted and counterproductive—a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (The Guardian)

Wisdom will save our lives and our species. And wisdom, correctly discerned, calls us to adopt a holistic and united approach to disasters. Outbreaks, pandemics, and crises of all sorts do not distinguish, delineate, or discriminate. Buddhist wisdom is famously non-discriminating as well. We should ensure that our many forms of infrastructure, including less visible kinds of support, such as kindness and compassion, are ready and steady when disruption and disaster strike.

See more

Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (World Health Organization)
China’s aggressive measures have slowed the coronavirus. They may not work in other countries (Science)
Disease is Inevitable. Compassion is a Choice (Tricycle)
Coronavirus: South Korea church leader apologises for virus spread (BBC News)
Preparing for Coronavirus to Strike the U.S. (Scientific American)
Why we need worst-case thinking to prevent pandemics (The Guardian)

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