Something astonishing has happened. Life as we have known it has been turned upside down. It has become a time to lament lost moments with friends and family, lost jobs, and even homes. It has become a time to grieve, deeply, the 334,680 deaths—as of this writing on 22 May—from the coronavirus pandemic. And it has become a time to question, and to implore others to question, the trajectories of our lives, our societies, and our planet.
The last time a virus so devastated humanity was more than 100 years ago, beyond the memories of nearly every human alive today. Even the children of those who survived the 1918 influenza pandemic often heard little about the deadly illness. This is because World War I—known for decades as “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”—had just concluded and the dual shock of both human-wrought destruction and this invisible trauma was too great for many to handle. For the Allied powers of WWI, the victory was clear and decisive. However, no treaty could ever be signed with the virus which ravaged the world in three distinct waves over two years, allowing its specter to haunt all those who survived.
The flu became known as “The Spanish Flu” because Spain wasn’t involved in the war and their free and open press was the first to widely report on it. This is just one of the many details that have slipped into the fog of history as humanity rushed forth into the “roaring twenties,” the Great Depression, and World War II.
Today, we should not rush forth. We have much to learn, both from the 1918 pandemic and from Buddhism’s moral teachings.
An immediate lesson should be humility. Non-experts, especially, are prone to either wild exaggeration of a new threat or to underestimating it by overstating its similarities with known dangers. In contrast, experts are often quick to say we know little about the virus and that we still need to study it carefully. Nonetheless, there are prudent steps that can be taken.
From the early admonitions to wash one’s hands to the now globally accepted practice of wearing face masks, we each have agency and responsibility in this age of coronavirus. Beyond this, we are seeing more clearly many of the shortcomings of contemporary society.
In China, several doctors were arrested in the early days of the outbreak and numerous journalists have been detained in the months since. In the UK, more than 300 National Health Service (NHS) workers have died along with over 35,000 lives lost due to the coronavirus. In the United States, over 40 million people have lost their jobs—a figure never before seen in recorded history—while at the same time a small handful of billionaires have managed to vastly increase their own wealth and subsequent power over the lives of every person in America and beyond. In India, tens of thousands of migrant workers lost their jobs overnight when the 24 March lockdown was announced. Many were forced to return home, often hundreds or over a thousand kilometers away, and many died en route.
As many have written, including our own columnists, we are in the midst of an apocalypse; an apocalypse in the sense of an uncovering. What we are seeing is a world wrought by the miseries of systemic greed, hatred, and ignorance.
In the US, Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes: “Extreme wealth inequality, in short, is America’s “pre-existing condition.” And unless we act intentionally—with ambitious public policies aimed at reversing inequality—the pandemic recovery will supercharge our existing inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity.” (Bloomberg)
This inequality and the ensuing suffering it brings is global in nature. We have an opportunity to learn from so much of history, and yet we must recognize that our opportunity is fleeting. Just as much of the world is pushing an often painful pause button, the momentous forces that have driven decades of greed, aversion, and delusion are hard at work. From the safety of their socially distanced mansions, they demand that ever more of the poorest workers go back to their jobs, often ill-equipped to remain safe. They will call the essential workers heroes, while allowing them to grow sick and die. Those in the middle, the office workers and tenured professionals, have a choice: supplicate to the growing power of the exorbitantly wealthy, or reach out to toil with the poorest, who often have no choice and certainly no power to affect change in this crucial time.
Guddi Singh, a pediatric doctor and PhD candidate in philosophy at King’s College London writes of the struggles in England:
The Achilles heel of healthcare in the UK is that we live in an individualistic culture that valorises heroes. Individualism has resulted in a healthcare system that never really addressed the true ‘causes of the causes’ of ill health in the first place. By focusing on acute care and the needs of individual patients, rather than on the health of the whole, the NHS was never going to live up to hopes of being ‘the great equaliser.’ Instead, the Anglo-American imaginary peoples its healthcare systems with bold, rugged individuals, preferably maverick doctor-types. Meanwhile the unobtrusive, unassuming, constant efforts of community workers and those working on health promotion have been ignored, underfunded and discarded. (The Polyphony)
How are we to respond to a world in which so many are ignored and discarded? The British Buddhist writer and commentator Vishvapani Blomfield offered this in a BBC editorial, responding to what he has witnessed in the world these last few weeks:
The great medieval Buddhist teacher Shantideva asks us to reflect as follows:
“Others want to avoid suffering, just like me, and share my desire for happiness. So why should their needs be less important than my own? If my foot is hurting, the hand doesn’t hesitate to sooth it.”
Shantideva’s plea goes beyond empathy. One Buddhist term for what he has in mind is anukampa, which means ‘trembling with others’: sharing their struggles as if they were our own. (BBC)
It will not be easy for those wishing to actively tremble with the suffering masses around us. Our own habituated patterns will again and again arise: seek comfort, seek entertainment, seek a villain to blame, and then return to ordinary life. But if we can taken anything from the ethical teachings of Shantideva and the Buddha before him, it is that our effort is needed, again and again, to affect lasting change.
Buddhism teaches that we are in this human realm precisely due to a certain amount of ignorance and resulting greed and aversion. We have work to do. The good news is that we have the opportunity to do it and in doing so to realize our connectedness with all of our fellow humans and beyond.
This moment is astonishing. It calls for a mustering of our moral intuitions, our sense of solidarity, in a way unseen since the last world war. The Buddhist path is described at times in the language of heroism. But more often than not it is a path of simple offerings, a path of humility.
Shantideva elsewhere tells us that we don’t need to despair if we cannot give our home or devote our careers to helping others. Give a carrot. Give a potato. What is your “carrot”? What can you give? We all can give something, even if it is very small. Together we can make a difference.
Coronavirus’ impact on Chicago recalls the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 (Chicago Sun Times)
Coronavirus: More than 300 NHS and care workers have now died from Covid-19, PM announces (The Independent)
Billionaires are getting even richer from the pandemic. Enough is enough (Bloomberg)
Coronavirus Crisis Appeal (Karuna Trust)
Coronavirus lockdown: The Indian migrants dying to get home (BBC)
Global report: WHO says Covid-19 ‘may never go away’ and warns of mental health crisis (BBC)
Of Monsters & Men: A Tragedy in Three Parts (The Polyphony)
Thought for the Day – Vishvapani (BBC)