By Martin Accad
Lebanon this academic year (2019-2020) has so far reaped three “pandemics:” the collapse of our political system, the collapse of our economy, and the collapse of our public health. Who could have predicted that we would use these words in a single sentence? As someone who grew up through the Lebanese Civil War from the mid-1970s; one who witnessed the first great collapse of our currency in the 1980s, when our Lebanese pound devaluated from 3.5 pounds to the US dollar to 1500 pounds over a few months; I never thought I would live to see the near-collapse of political, economic, and health sectors in a single year. Covid-19, aka coronavirus, which is bringing our world to its knees, is a metaphor for all that is wrong with us today. But could it also be a metaphor for what can be right?
Since the start of the anti-sectarian revolution that mobilized masses of Lebanese on 17 October 2019, the signs of the collapse of a political system, plagued with extremist politics and extremist religion, have appeared. Revolution largely subsided as a result of pending economic collapse and now continues to dissipate due to the limitation of social contact imposed by this viral disease. The economic crisis was not caused by the revolution but is rather the result of decades of corruption, clientelism, and financial mismanagement within the Lebanese political system.
Enter COVID-19 on the world stage – consider it a metaphor for the viral sickness of political extremism bolstered by decades of mounting religious extremism throughout the 20th Century. Lebanon as a microcosm is the metaphor of a dormant virus that has been incubating for decades throughout the world, finally manifesting itself over the past twenty years through unprecedented scales of racism, xenophobia, closed borders, population displacement, and violence. Corrupt economics and clientelism, so acutely and scandalously revealed since October 2019 in Lebanon, has also been the order of the day globally for decades. This is no doubt a significant factor in the rise of religious extremism, a diagnostic chiefly manifested through the 20th Century.
But if COVID-19 was finally recognized by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic, could the protective steps against it also stand as a metaphor for the solution to other pandemics? Two words stand out if one is able to think beyond the tragedy and fear surrounding the coronavirus: Global Solidarity.
As governments around the globe take drastic measures to protect their citizens, even ISIS issued a travel warning to its terrorist members on the 15th of March advising them to avoid travel to Europe. (The suspension of terrorism in the face of COVID-19 may be the irony of the year!) But beyond the extremes, in numerous contexts the dominance of the pandemic across world media has imposed a suspension of religious and ethnic division and hateful discourse to confront a greater evil. As everyone faces their mortality, a pause on hatred has been triggered by a sense of solidarity deriving from our common humanity.
Suddenly too, we seem to be witnessing the suspension of economic egotism within and across governments, as some political actors awaken to the realization that our societies are economically interconnected. Government waivers of taxes, promises of financial compensation for unemployment, and announcements of universal healthcare to fight the plague have hit like lightning in many countries. Disease control has taken precedence over financial profit . . . for a time at least.
But COVID-19 has also impacted our individualistic and selfish tendencies. Though the young and healthy are told that the virus has less potency over them, most of us seem suddenly and quietly to have acquiesced to the suspension of our personal comfort and self-interest in order to protect the more vulnerable in our communities. We are willing to close our restaurants, malls, cinemas, and schools, and to confine ourselves to self-imposed quarantine at home, in order to minimize the spread of the disease and spare our sick and elderly.
The picture is not all one of redemption. There are also those who have rushed out selfishly to hoard goods at the expense of others. And politicians who point fingers and shift blame on external agents for introducing the disease into their country – scoring points in these tragic times – remind us that both our own human selfishness and that of extreme politics remain resistant to the scourge of the virus.
When fear strikes, solidarity seems to take – if even for a short time – priority over our fanatic minds and our egotistic selves in a desperate effort to push off the advance of disease and death. Fear and pain can be good for humans. They cut through the haze of our compulsive focus on personal comfort. They make us more accepting of those who are different, more generous toward those who have less than us, more caring for the most vulnerable. Could it be that this global pandemic is making us more human . . . for a time at least? If only we could remember those lessons in a few months, when all goes back to normal. Our communities would be a notch closer to living out the values of God’s Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh . . . (Luke 6:20–21)
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24–25)
Solidarity with our fellow-humans – this seems to be at the core of Jesus’ teaching. Delayed gratification for the sake of those whose wellbeing depends on our willingness to share the earth’s resources. Soon our scientists will discover the vaccine; human immunity will ramp up; the air’s temperature will rise and possibly limit the lifespan of the virus. All will return to normal. But will we remember the lessons of the time of pandemic when our world was coming to an end? Sadly, most will not, but perhaps some will. Would that we honor the victims of COVID-19 – from Wuhan in China to Codogno in Lombardy, Italy – by retaining the values learned in the time of the pandemic that claimed their lives. Would that the values of God’s Kingdom be remembered and practiced beyond the time of tragedy, suffering, and death.