From Fear to Compassion: Contradictions in the Time of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Dr. Rey Ty has a wide experience in academia and practical approaches to interfaith peacebuilding, human rights, gender, environmentalism, and social justice issues, with a focus on training peace activists. He is currently the Program Coordinator of Building Peace and Moving beyond Conflict of the Christian Conference of Asia. Rey has an interdisciplinary background. He has taught at different universities in the U.S.A., Thailand, and the Philippines. Rey has a Master’s degree in Political Science and a doctorate from Northern Illinois University, specializing in human rights and peace education. He also has a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Rey has published both peer-reviewed academic and popular non-academic materials in his fields of specializations.

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We live in a time of intense contradictions. Despite advances in science and technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), we humans live in dangerous times during which we cannot control the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19. This pandemic demonstrates that free-market corporate globalization is biologically unsustainable. The disease lays bare our tininess in the scheme of things. It knows no borders and hits everyone. While scientists are working hard to find a vaccine or magic pill to stifle the virus, we must remember that the ruling classes throughout recent history use bacteria and virus to create both bacteriological weapons and the quarantining of our rights and freedoms.

 

Epidemics and pandemics are nothing new. The Roman Empire fell under an epidemic. During the Bubonic Plague, countless people died. The Black Death recurred for centuries stretching from Central Asia to the rest of Europe, thanks to international maritime commerce. Other epidemics included the Spanish flu, SARS, and MERS.

 

What lessons can we learn from prominent thinkers about the relationship of power, mega projects, and pandemics in fiction and nonfiction?  Weber indicated that rulers since antiquity used discipline for their self-aggrandizement, such as the construction of the pyramids in North African Middle East and the trafficking and abuse of free people as slave labor in agricultural production in the Americas. People are programmed to perform tasks to suit the interests and needs of the powerful economic and political elites.

 

In his book The Plague (1947), Camus wrote: “The plagues indeed are a common thing, but one hardly believes in the plagues when they fall on your head.” True to his existentialist philosophy, Camus says plagues cause suffering which is randomly distributed and thus is absurd. He noted that when people praise medical professionals for their heroism, most would say they were not being heroic, just “doing my job.”

 

In his Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault gave a stern warning about what the ruling elites do to control the people. Due to the fear of the plague, institutions and techniques are used to measure, quantify, supervise, discipline, and control the population, especially the sick and those deemed abnormal. During the 17th-century plague, governments resorted to quarantine and purification campaigns, which included partitioning off spaces, closure of houses, inspection, and registration.  However, these draconian solutions create new social problems. People internalized their fear and became submissive sheep as they are being monitored. Surveillance measures become normalized and permanent. Bentham’s panopticon and Orwell’s Big Brother are metaphors of the surveillance state. People lose their civil liberties way beyond the duration of the epidemic. Hence, ruling powers’ measures to deal with epidemics have long-term impact on human rights.

 

Under the current international political economy in the time of the pandemic, more contradictions come into play. There are (1) non-antagonistic contradictions between the economic elite and the political elite; and (2) antagonistic contradictions between the ruling classes on the one hand and people and Nature on the other hand. In a word, we are witnessing a clash of values in favor of (1) selfishness or (2) compassion at work.

 

What are needed now are mass testing, medical equipment, medical supplies, and food supplies, the latter especially for the poor and marginalized during the quarantine and lockdown. The political elites are torn between serving the health needs of the people and the economic motive of profit of the economic elites. Some political elites align themselves with the economic elites, while others with the masses of the people. Some governments err on the side of Big Business, opting to conduct business as usual as soon as possible at the peril of exponentially increasing coronavirus infections, while others err on the side of the health of the people. Some governments are half-hearted in providing the much needed medical supplies and equipment needed during the pandemic, while others provide full medical support for the people. Some national governments make local governments engage in a bidding war for ventilators and masks, while others provide free and full medical support to health workers and the sick, regardless of citizenship. Thus, some political elites view wealth more favorably over health, while others consider health as wealth.

 

Instead of inflating their egos, the ruling powers should show their leadership, take their responsibilities, as well as use compassion and fact-based science in decision-making, especially in emergency situations. Lack of or delayed action to prevent the spread of the disease shows their lack of leadership.

 

We are witnessing the best and the worst in humanity at play right now. The world is not flat and we don’t have a level playing field, as we do not suffer equally during the pandemic. Sartre stressed that plagues highlight the contradictions between classes: epidemics attack the poor and spare the rich who disinfect their homes and ask their cleaning ladies to enter their homes first and stay there for a week to ensure it is safe for the rich to enter. Many individuals post online, offering help to strangers, family, and friends alike. At the same time, discrimination and hatred abound.  The rich hoard goods and hide in luxurious bunkers with medical and culinary staff. The poor cannot afford to be sick and not work.  Day laborers, gig workers, poor peasants, street vendors, and small businesses have a day-to-day economic cycle. The very poor stay in densely occupied living quarters and the homeless don’t a roof above their heads: so much for physical (or “social”) distancing for the poor. Washing hands with soap and water is a great preventive measure. However, roughly 785 million people, or one in nine persons on Earth, do not have access to safe water. Clearly, the current situation and the involuntary lockdowns to varying degrees around the world have a lopsided effect on the poor, small peasant villagers, self-employed, and small businesses. Furthermore, some partners and spouses are trapped in domestic violence during lockdowns.

 

On the macro level, Naomi Klein emphasizes that during crises, such as pandemics, off-the-leash predatory free-market disaster capitalism is at work. Economic and political elites capitalize on crises, making money from other people’s misery. Some governments bail out the already super-rich and call for austerity for the urban and rural poor: this is a case of socialism for the rich. This is the sorry state of our current history.

 

What are our tasks ahead?

 

In the backdrop is climate emergency, whichever forces seize the moment during this conjuncture of virus and climate crises as well as the general crisis of the structure of the current international political economy will set the agenda in the post-pandemic period. This is the struggle between the forces of selfishness and greed on the one hand and of caring and sharing on the other hand.

 

This pandemic exposes the utter corruption of corporate globalists who only look after themselves. The current pandemic is a wake-up call for us to employ this short window of opportunity to push for our comprehensive agenda for economic, social, cultural, civil, political, environmental, climate, and animal justice now.

 

Some ask: Where’s God? I ask: Where’s humanity? What are you doing in the face of the pandemic: nothing, withdraw from the world, pontificate, ill-intentioned and deliberately spreading disinformation, well-intentioned but spreading misinformation,  sharing scientific facts from reputable sources, or “I don’t give a damn as I have good immunity,” potentially spreading the virus to the vulnerable?

 

In his Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527), Martin Luther expressed that individuals make their own personal choices whether to leave or to stay. While asking for God to protect mercifully the people, he delineated certain responsibilities for people. Individuals must do what they can so as neither to get the disease nor to spread it to others, such as washing, quarantine, and taking medicine. Pastors provide spiritual care. Parents and children take care of each other.  Paid public officials such as public administrators, public health workers, cops, and emergency responders ensure the safety and health of all. Service to God is a practice of faith via service to neighbors in need. In whatever capacity they can, Christians ought to help their neighbors in need in whatever capacity they can. Surely, all other religions have some teachings regarding assistance to the poor and the sick.

 

In the Old Testament, Noah’s Ark reminds us that we need to be in self-isolation for the common good, not to procrastinate, to get on board, and to do what needs to be done. In the New Testament, Jesus always cared for the sick, the poor, and the marginalized.

 

In our time of the coronavirus pandemic, on the micro-level, we need to give whatever we can quietly to those in need, including our families, friends, neighbors, elderly, widows, children of others, orphans, travelers, strangers, refugees, migrant workers in cramped labor camps, detained undocumented migrants, and those who don’t have money to stockpile supplies. Assistance can come in the form of listening ears, kindness, love, time, patience, talent, prayers, a helping hand, or treasures. If you have the wherewithal or spare resources, support others with food, medicine, soap, hand sanitizer, or money. Communicate: Knock at the door of, send an email to, or call your family, friends, or neighbors, especially those who are alone, the elderly, and widows, if there is anything they need, without compromising your and their health. Sincerely offer support, out of the compassion, neither for competition, nor honor, nor publicity. Verbally give thanks to the selfless health professionals who serve the sick. Support small local businesses. Seek the humanitarian release of old, sickly, and non-violent prisoners who don’t pose public safety. Give decent tips to delivery drivers who were hitherto considered as unskilled workers but are now providing much needed emergency service.

 

On the macro-level, we have to reflect and act on structural changes now. Defend civil liberties.  Support living wages, decent life, small local businesses, full medical care for all, protection of workers’ rights, government accountability to the people not to corporations,  international solidarity not sanctions, emergency relief assistance, social services, and social safety net for the poor, vulnerable, and disadvantaged, including our planet and animals. Aside from stricter bans on the killing and consumption of wildlife, this pandemic has led to the clearing of the air in most parts of the world because of the temporary stoppage of most road transportation and the shutdown of rapacious economic exploitation of nature in the form of industrial production of commodities produced which are meant to be obsolescent. The people need to recapture power to control our livelihood, health, food, and medicine, as the so-called free-market corporate globalization is exposed to have failed in providing the goods and services needed in the pandemic and well as the in protecting nature in general.

 

The public generally accept travel restrictions and physical distancing as appropriate to curb the spread of the coronavirus. However, shoring up their public images, many governments are using the pandemic to stifle legitimate critique and the opposition, limiting the freedom of speech and expression under the pretext of ceasing fake news. In one country, the security forces attack quarantine violators with canes, while in another country, its president orders troops to shoot them. In these times of emergency, political elites lust for and are engaged in power grabs that codify and further limit the rights of the people against which we must raise consciousness in order to push back against these encroachments on our rights. We have to keep an eye on and defend our civil liberties and human rights constantly.

 

Stay strong. Be optimistic. Care and share.  Mutual assistance. Our compassion should show no borders. Don’t lose hope.  But hope is not a strategy. We need to be vigilant and take action now. Our destinies are all tied together, as we are all connected: humans and non-humans. When Japan sent supplies to China, on the boxes they put a Buddhist poem:  “We have different mountains and rivers, but we share the same sun, moon, and sky”.  When China sent medical masks to Italy, they put on the crates ancient Roman philosopher Seneca’s poem: “We are waves from the same sea, leaves from the same tree, flowers from the same garden.”

 

Now is the time to show love, solidarity, compassion, mutual assistance, as well as political commitment to action for deep structural changes in whatever way you can. Seize the moment: the time to act for people and Nature is now. Do whatever little or big thing you can do. Nothing is too small. The hour for change is now.

 

 

 

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