– Carlos M. Frota
I cannot avoid being seduced, intellectually speaking, by the profound changes in the very fabric of our societies, by the coronavirus and its impact on human behavior and social relations. They are already under way and will be more pronounced in the future.
First of all, the unexpected threat on our innocent programs of life, like the employee of a firm going abroad for a regular business trip and going back home infected. And the medical doctor in a hospital treating a patient who suffers a seasonal flu and both ending in quarantine. Not forgetting the old couple enjoying two weeks visiting the place of their dreams in a cruise ship and finishing in an isolation unit for infected people, far away from their own country!
And seeing deserted streets, empty restaurants, desolate façades of imposing monuments without visitors, public parks with nobody walking in, I cannot but be surprised by how fast the life of huge cities is “dis-organized,” “de-articulated,” like pieces of a puzzle put without order in their box until next game, until next time.
Small business closed. I imagine the anxiety of families without resources, counting the last coins of the piggy bank until the crisis is over. The temporary lay off of companies. Similar despair for managers but mainly for employees.
The multiple effects of the crisis show us the degree of connection, of interdependence, as in a big laboratory seeing the confirmation of the principle of the communicating vessels. Everything is linked to everything.
There are strong symbols of every special epoch, of every particular circumstance, and avoiding crowds and even physical contacts among close relatives will be remembered as the symbol of this nefarious time of the coronavirus.
We cannot escape remembering the old biblical times of the lepers (some cured by Jesus) living in caves at the periphery of the villages and repeating loudly unclean! unclean!, to avoid contaminating their fellow citizens.
Forbidden kisses and hugs, welcome the namaste! Forget for a while shake-hands, repeated lips to cheeks (or, in other cultures, nose to nose compliments), even friendly, affectionate spankings on the back – are totally excluded!
And if we are informed that the American president will not comply with these new constraints, so “natural,” so undisciplined is his behavior, we watched members of the British Royal Family, so strict in protocol, practicing the gracious compliment imported from the wise Buddhist tradition. Palms of the hands joined, a slight inclination of the head and a word of respect pronounced with a smile. Westerners practicing yoga know that very well.
Gracious as it is, the question is unavoidable: namaste used by foreigners in this particular disturbing times represents just a strategy of survival in a social environment transformed by the epidemics, or instead a kind of conversion, a new awareness of the other, the individuality of the other, the needs of the other, overcoming simple self-preservation to express community driven sentiments?
And a sudden interrogation cannot be excluded from our thoughts: after this crisis and forced to cooperate more closely will we, as human beings, be better for each other, improving our capacity to replace pure individualism for a more open, altruistic vision of the world?
The colors of discrimination
Special times require a different behavior in dealing with what is new, unknown, uncertain. And adaptation is a condition of survival for common citizens of course, but also an opportunity for political leadership to show decisive, appropriate action, inspired by respect for nationals and foreigners alike.
Blaming foreigners for the origin of the coronavirus epidemics, (the insistence on the ‘Wuhan virus’ was the beginning of a narrative largely shared in America and in Europe, as we know) with the collateral result of exacerbating xenophobia, could be the worst of the outcomes of the present crisis. But the rapid change in the geography of the pandemics converted Europe into its epicenter, and if the spiral of xenophobia persists, we will witness the strange phenomenon of xenophobia changing skin colors or national origin or whatever criteria is good for discrimination! In fact, ALL discrimination is bad.
But blaming China for the origin of the crisis had other two unexpected developments, full of irony … Considering the seriousness of the situation in Italy , the authorities of Beijing sent teams and equipment to Rome to help in the fight to contain the spread of the disease. And the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma offered to the United States an impressive amount of masks and kits for testing the virus, due to the failure in American provisions of both in order to protect the American people.
The “American people” …
… the same of the so divisive Trumpian slogan ‘America First,’ it’s not, as the current crisis shows, the abstract symbol for electoral use, so cherished by Trump and his campaign team. The American people, like the Chinese people, the Italian people, the South Korean people, all other peoples, are just human beings deserving compassion and protection.
And here – compassion , protection – more eventually than in other areas, total equality is absolutely required! The ideology of the dominant race has its place in the dustbin of History, even if some in Europe try to reopen the old garbage, despite its terrible odor and its no less terrible memories.
The word upside-down
Churches deserted, basilicas closed, St Peter’s square empty of its usual crowds, an obvious invitation to another form of thinking, praying, living. I insist: not only to comply with the regulations dictated by the health authorities, but to experience these special times with a different attitude, a diverse kind of awareness.
Pope Francis gives us, every morning in Europe, from Santa Marta House, the inspiration of his words, during Mass, to feed our day.
I deeply respect this venerable, holy man – I say to myself – seeing him bowing to the cross, kissing the altar, approaching the lectern with the Holy Scriptures. I deeply respect the courage of him carrying such a heavy burden, the Church he leads towards the uncharted territories of the future.
Well advanced now in his eighties, having completed the seventh year of his pontificate, I cannot imagine the complexity of the issues he is obliged to deal with, from early in the morning until late in the evening, plus the agenda of his diplomatic duties and the trips around the world in Olympic tours requiring the fitness of youngsters, not seniors… And his long time for prayer.
Now this pandemic, with its fears, its social and economic implications, and the moral and religious answers the Holy Father is expected to give to the community of believers .
Suddenly his beloved Italy, never exempted from problems, from refugees to mafia to corruption … the beloved motherland of his grandparents and his parents, becomes the epicenter of a global pandemic!
– “What an honor” – Jorge Mario Bergoglio could ironically say, in his private conversations with the Heavenly Father!
From Pope Francis, Catholics all over the word (and even well beyond the Christian community…) await the words of hope and consolation, because common people feel, through Francis’ humility, his proximity to God.
And these words are coming, teaching us, patiently, the deep mysteries of the Almighty.