Corona Virus as Teacher

by Brayton Shanley

It has been six long months since Covid 19 arrived and began to shut the country down, bringing the mighty to their knees and the world’s economic and social life to a halt.  With some states opening prematurely, we are experiencing a second wave, with over 39 states reporting increases in the virus.  It appears that we are losing our struggle to resist the virus and our lack of commitment to protocol is spreading it.  The casual joys of summer relaxed strict protocols and the virus began spiking, spreading fear and trembling throughout the country.

Minus the human condition, the earth is flourishing.  Wild animals are re-inhabiting towns and cities that have emptied.  When Italy closed wild boars roamed through vacated towns.  Birders are reporting more varieties of birds, more robust bird calls.  Are these animal emissaries of hope, a counter sign of the befoulment of the human takeover of Mother Earth?

We moderns have been living in a frantic chronos, a tyranny of time and accomplishment.  But now a more propitious, opportune time is upon us, kairos time, an historical moment ripe for critical action.  “The time has come; the reign of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  Kairos often comes as a surprise, but we can grow in the knowledge of ourselves if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

If we allow the extremity of this pandemic to awaken us, the wrong path on which we have been dangerously treading will be revealed.  Can we, in the face of so much suffering and death, restore our lost connection to each other and to the earth?   And where might we start?

Mind Our Minds

Gandhi is famous for saying “good travels at a snail’s pace.”  The better, wiser, and more loving we become, the slower and less anxious our thinking becomes, the more measured our movements.  Covid 19 has enforced a slower more uncertain pace, less commuting to a faraway workplace, fewer hours at the office, more time in and around home. Most of us could live a much less frantic dawn- to- dusk schedule, beholden to more quiet mindful movements, void of the customary noise and speed. This new, vibrating sense of awareness sheds light on our conditioned habits, making room for new life-giving habits. Mindful quiet is the indispensable environment for self-revelation.

Are we conditioned to listening to the dominant political voices around us insisting the corona virus is the enemy and that we must wage a successful war to defeat this deadly foe?  How much of our thought process is lived in fear of “the deadly other” out there?  Daily reports of the growing virus leave us no choice but to engage fully in the battle.  Anxiety seeps into our inner world when we observe these covid times leveling the daily routines around us. Conversely, can we see the pain and anguish of this virus, not as a terrible punishment, but as a remarkable, yet anguished opportunity to see ourselves as we really are?

The corona virus was spread throughout the entire planet by hundreds of thousands of airplanes in three months, so conditioned were we humans to race across the globe chasing more power, more money, more happiness.  Likewise, we immerse ourselves in more action, noise, movement, work, work, work, every empty space in life to be filled, always gazing at a screen, always “doing” something.  The pandemic has slowed us and anything that slows us can awaken us.  Slower allows more awareness.  Awareness can lead us to a more contemplative outlook, experiencing ourselves as we truly are. 

Is Our Society’s Immune System Failing?

In the first two months of the virus in the US, 90% of all Covid fatalities were people with pre-existing conditions.  Covid was immediately lethal to those with serious health problems:  elders with compromised immune systems, those suffering from hypertension, diabetes, heart problems, atrial fibrillation and obesity.  Strong immune systems resist disease very well, even into older age. That is the body’s design.  Do we need to be running away from the virus as much as running toward a sane and healthy life?

Covid 19 is more a symptom than a cause.  The larger questions besides how do we beat this virus may be:  What is our paradigm of a healthy pattern of life?  Can we take this pause in a frantic American cultural routine to restore our bodies and repair the misery of ill-health that makes us so vulnerable to diseases and sickness?  How do we make peace within ourselves where there has been a constant inner war?  Our slower, limited movements in this pandemic can open a more contemplative door into our present state and mind and heal us.

Covid 19 Teaches Us that Racism is Deadly

The lynchpin of a successful campaign to flatten the Corona virus curve is social distancing.  Like other virus protocols and methods to slow this spiking disease, they are often the privilege of the white economically comfortable class of Americans. Black and brown people and the poor are limited to finding work in essential but low paying jobs in food services, transportation, and construction where they are more likely to be infected by the virus.   

These economically and racially oppressed people are more likely to bring the virus home to a cramped apartment where it is harder to quarantine and distance.  Working from home is also a privilege.  It can mean you own a home.  Cleaning food to make it safe to eat, is a privilege.  It means you have money to buy, especially healthy food.  The poor do not ever have these luxuries.

But, the starkest and most unbearable statistic of Covid 19 is:  Black people per capita, die of this virus at twice the numbers as whites and they are contracting the virus at three times the white average.  Blacks often work at the lowest paid yet considered essential jobs. They are the last hired, the first fired, having paltry little if any savings to fall back on.

In addition, black wealth has decreased since the recession of 2008.  Because our black sisters and brothers can’t save money, they can’t buy homes, preventing them from accumulating wealth.  These oppressed who are 12% of the country’s population do not have access to healthy, affordable food, or health care.  In poverty housing, they face the Covid 19 virus with pre-existing health conditions that result from being economically and racially trapped in urban poverty. 

Is the fact that Covid 19 is twice as deadly for African Americans as it is for Whites, just one more injustice that enrages them at a system where whites are always superior? Black Catholic radio host Gloria Purvis challenges our faith to the core; “Racism makes a liar of God. It states not everyone is made in God’s image. What a horrible lie from the pit of hell.”

It is not surprising that in the first months of the spread of Covid 19, Black people took to the streets immediately following the news of the public torture and murder of George Floyd. 

Safety from the virus was instantly eclipsed by their demand to the “white power structure: “Stop killing Black people.” Early in the Los Angeles protest, an African American woman held a banner reading: “White people, how do you want me to die? In prison?  Covid 19?  Murdered in the streets?”  Is it any surprise that “No justice, No peace” is the movement’s rallying cry?

Black writer, Frank Wilderson, comments in his book “Afropessimism” that “Black people are integral to human society but also excluded from it.  The experience of slavery across all of history is the slave is exploited and robbed of his/her personhood.  But the black person is always a slave and a perpetual corpse buried beneath the world.  Blackness is coterminous with slaveness.”

American society’s pre-existing condition is the pandemic of white racial oppression of people of color.  Covid 19’s propensity to kill Black people burns a searing truth into white consciousness, a non-negotiable demand: this social death, this perpetual “slavery” of Black people, must end as of George Floyd’s murder.

Covid Virus and Climate Change

The pandemic that is spreading into 230 countries is threatening the life and wellbeing of billions of humans.  But the threat, relatively speaking, is short term.  Wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods caused by planetary warming will be with us for hundreds of years and threaten the existence of every life form on earth. 

How does the corona virus speak to the crisis of climate change?  Is the virus nature’s way of telling us how all of us, especially the comfortable, need to live?  Is this nature’s way of saying “No” to the road our extractive, high tech, modern life has taken?

Nature is feeding back her conclusion on our frenzied materialism, our industrial economy, and the fossil fuels to run it. She cries an adamant, unforgiving “NO” to all pre-covid norms of economic growth.  To a simpler, slower way of being human, she is saying: “Adapt to the present more stripped-down style of life or perish.” 

Arvol Looking Horse, Chief of the Lakota tribe warned us at the 2017 St. Francis Day at Agape, “humans are the only species that are destroying the foundations of life on earth.”  In China it wasn’t telecommuting or grounded airplanes that caused the immediate 25% drop in carbon emissions, it was the cessation of the industrial economy, machines and manufacturing.  The pandemic is showing the human addiction to macro-industrial, oil and gas glutted getting and spending. The prophecy of Covid 19 is: learn to thrive closer to home- walk, bike, live on less, enjoy more.

In China just two months of reduced pollution saved the lives of 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over the ages of 70. (Science Alert, Jacinta Bowler, March 17, 2020).

How many more lives would we save in the US if we lived the life that this pandemic is demanding?   We must evolve economic cultures that support all human life living on 50 million barrels of oil a day instead of customary 100 million barrels.  The extreme weather of climate change will not give us a choice.  Masking and social distancing will not save the planet; it will only save humans. But once saved, will we be ready to do simpler things with smaller amounts of money in our pockets? This kairos time calls out an urgent demand–reinvent yourselves. 

What Work Is Good Work

What are the inconveniences of Covid showing us about what work is essential?  Can we take a page from the spiritual master, Buddha, and his teaching on “right livelihood?”  Does our burning oil sitting for hours in traffic jams foster a peaceful life only to arrive at a job we have no love for, willing to be someone else’s tool in a culture of takers?  Al Kaline, legendary Baseball Hall of Famer said after he retired from the game: “Did spending my life hitting baseballs do any good?  Did it really improve anyone?  Could I have instead gone into medicine and helped people?”

In this moment do we have the courage to ask the same question? Do I just continue the lethal stress of working for more money?  Do I add my labor to a growth-obsessed economic system that cooks the earth and cooks our children’s futures?  The science tells us that a 32-hour work week would significantly lower carbon emissions and vastly de-stress our frantic pace.  Let’s hope that this forced “sheltering in place” awakens us to the kind of livelihood that is truly a right livelihood.

What about our most sacred industrial society machine, the beloved automobile?  America’s cities waste enormous square miles on cars, for driving and parking. The sparse Covid-limited cities sound quieter, look more at peace, feel more humane to humans while making equal room for the more than human plants and animals.  Thanks to the efforts of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, more of Paris is built for pedestrians, a major city miracle with 40% less traffic.

We cannot afford to go back to pre-Covid automobile use.  We must reinvent transportation.  But how?  We are kinder to the earth when we humans are doing what we are designed to do– walk, the most natural, rhythmic way to a strong and healthy body.  Harvard human evolutionary biologist, Dr. Daniel Lieberman reminds us: “Our bodies are still those of endurance athletes, evolved to walk many miles a day, and often run, as well as dig, climb and carry.”  Just walking on our two feet, along God’s green earth, is what we were made for, not sitting, and pushing buttons and pressing down on gas and brake pedals, cursing our lives.

What Are People of Faith to Do?

If we underestimate the virus, it will find us.  If we survive the virus, rebuild, and reinvent our ways of being, we will live more as God intended us to.  Kairos is revealing a true experience of “oneness” in these crisis times.  All humanity, the entire world population, is united in one effort; to survive this virus. 

The New Testament gospel of Matthew offers us an image: “New wine into new wine skins” which narrates the clash of old forms with new faith (Mt 9:17). “New” speaks to the prophetic urgency of now.  When you put new wine in old wineskins, gases from the new wine will burst open old skins.  Similarly, a new more evolved and living faith is incompatible with tired out-of-date religious beliefs and practices. 

The crisis of Covid 19 and Climate Change is crying out to us— “spending yourselves relying on speed, and the ferocity of competitive win/lose ways of living and working is too old. You need to be done with them.” 

The Navajo nation in Colorado, gave up farming five years ago when 3 million gallons of metal contaminated waste was dumped in the south west river system in Colorado.  Adding to their woes, the Navajos were suffering the highest Corona Virus rate in the country.  Their reservation, located in one of the poorest counties in the nation was federally deemed a food desert, requiring the natives to travel 40 minutes to the nearest food store.

Navajo farmer, Tyrone Thompson responded by starting a food-growing revolution within the reservation. “We are going back to using the tools that were given to us by our elders and ancestors,” he said.  “Our planting stick, our steering stick. These are the tools against hunger, poverty and sickness.”  Many Navajos are spending these uncertain pandemic days at home, reclaiming their traditional native farming.  Recently, the virus has seen a steady decline across the reservation. Sometimes “new” is so old it looks new! (Peter Maurin).

Pope Francis insists that we must fully acknowledge our broken humanity and wounded earth and treat this spiritual and physical reality as a field hospital, that is, tend to each other’s healing first.  Grateful that we can rely on the life sustaining abundance of our mother the earth, she will “serve our need not our greed” (Gandhi).

“The meek shall inherit the earth,” preaches Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount.  The meek, meaning the “God-molded” do not need to conquer, subdue, or control the earth.  The earth is given to the meek as gift.   All Christians, indeed, all people of faith are called to pray for this new faith and the courage to live convincingly a more contemplative life. Reliance on the God of all life will surely change us in time and pull us back from the self-inflicted brink of destruction.