How strange this time is. Separated, distanced, alone with our thoughts, imaginings, fears… We don’t know when our isolation will end, how high the COVID-19 infections and deaths numbers will soar. We watch in horror as Italy, France, Spain, the US, Iran, suffer soaring casualties. No one knows if the apparent success of China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan can or will become the pattern. Refugees everywhere are sitting ducks for viral spread. Humanity is linked by its fragility in the face of COVID-19.
Canadians feel new gratitude for the manifest good sense and humanity of our public health system accessible to all of us. And in Ontario, there’s fear and some resentment that our wealthy province has the fewest hospital beds per thousand of population of any province because of neoliberal cuts initiated by Conservative premier Mike Harris.
The hope everywhere is the generosity and kindness, the humanity demonstrated by doctors, nurses, and frontline workers, community commitment to rescue the sick and the vulnerable; the concern of friends who keep in touch by phone, email, Zoom; the volunteers who maintain food banks and outreach to the hungry, the homeless, the mentally ill. In disasters, we rediscover that most people are brave, generous, altruistic. Goodwill, hearts alive to the needs of others – and such gratitude: the soaring melodies from Italian balconies, cheers from Vancouver streets, gratitude for all the medical workers risking their lives to save their stricken fellow human beings. The signs of connection, commitment, sense of purpose, and community agency are manifest.
What if this deep awareness of our common humanity, fragility, and uncertainty — of the preciousness of human life on Earth — were to remain with us, a gift of the virus? Our demonstrated common concern for human well-being could focus on the changes urgently needed to avert climate catastrophe. Military expenditures and plans for armed conflict, even the drive for global hegemony impelling the US and luring China and Russia, could be set aside. Human resources and energies desperately needed could address environmental needs in the climate crisis, and the gross inequality that is undermining health and the ability to participate fully in humanity’s common work. Resources and skills committed to green technologies, reparative work in society: these could be the gifts of the virus.
COVID-19 is revealing depths of human kindness and imagination focused on care. It also inspired UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to tell us that “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.” His call in late March for support for a ceasefire in all conflicts worldwide was welcomed and supported by 53 nations, including Canada, France, the EU, Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. Some militias in armed conflict have already agreed to observe the ceasefire (for example in the Philippines and Cameroon). Humanitarian awareness and empathy inspired the three international humanitarian conferences that energized the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and led in 2017 to the negotiation and adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear weapons, military strategies, and war have no place in addressing the needs of our torn world.
The silver lining in the dark cloud of viral blackness is dawning insight that humanity cares and can act, that we ourselves have the power to do good. The urgent need to care for the Earth, prevent catastrophic decline in biodiversity, and radically reduce carbon emissions in the next decade to avert climate disruption and ecological devastation that would undermine civilization is clear. If in this strange time we could see nuclear weapons and war as a vicious, insane addiction we do not need, and turn decisively from them, and if we focused our energies on caring for the Earth, its lands, forests, oceans and creatures, COVID-19 would turn out to be a real, if painful gift. Let’s not lose the insights. Humanity needs this victory over violence and destruction.
Phyllis Creighton, longtime SfP board member and now honorary life member, is an ethicist, historian, writer, and retired editor.