Learning from a crisis

The world has changed with COVID-19. A little virus has grounded most aircraft, stopped business in its tracks, paralysed the global economy and caused mass death. When for example British pubs, which remained open throughout World War Two, are closed we should know that things have changed. The problem is what happens after this crisis has passed.

From a historian’s perspective, this may even feel like a cycle of time: we advance through history, we face a global cataclysm, and we resolve it. Until it begins again.

Need it always be so? Philosopher Thomas Kuhn (in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) suggests that science sometimes makes a jump into new insights. This reimagining is a paradigm shift.

A crisis is an opportunity, an opportunity to change the whole paradigm of how we live. We need to reimagine ourselves not just as citizens of a country but as the human species. Global crises are good in that respect: they confront us with our humanly made concepts and force us to define what is fundamental about ourselves.

And what are we? We are human beings, wherever we are, whatever our backgrounds. All other qualifying terms are meaningless. Do we go back to our old ways, when – faced with COVID-19 – these ways have failed us at present, revealing the fault-lines running through all institutions, all ideologies and practices we consider normal?

If we want to break the cycle, we need a new paradigm. And the first part of it is to situate ourselves as human beings within the greater context of creation. We can no longer place ourselves above nature. We must see ourselves as part of creation, working with God’s universe to serve the common good of the planet as a whole.

This means, secondly, rethinking our global economy. It is unsustainable in its present form, rooted in an ethics of greed and overconsumption. There is a view that COVID-19 is in some sense nature’s reaction against how we have dominated the Earth. At very least, the pandemic has revealed how inequality and lack of cooperation have made many societies more vulnerable than others. The absolute necessity of global collaboration in finding a cure to COVID-19 should be seen as the way of proceeding in a future economy. How might this be achieved?

Thirdly, we must revisit and reform our individual lives. We must be mindful of how we live our lives, not only what and how we consume things, but how we relate to others. Do we treat others (humans and nature) as subjects or as objects we use, ‘things’ taken for granted? Perhaps, in our enforced social isolation, we have come to a new appreciation of them. Will this persist, or will we go back to our old ways?

There are many questions. No answers. It’s not my job to tell you what to think. I just ask you to think. Then act. If we do this, perhaps we will have found in this the grace of COVID-19.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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