Being human in the coronavirus era


A Scot who spent his life working in international development reflects on the impact of the coronavirus on our humanity.

I, like many, only knew the word ‘corona’ in two very separate meanings. The first was the excellent Mexican beer whose company has recently reported a £132 million loss of revenue after being unfairly associated with the virus. The second was the corona around the sun which, apparently, gave scientists the name of the virus because of its similar shape. Such a simple name which produces Covid-19, a respiratory illness that can basically suffocate humans, has not only killed and made ill thousands of people but turned the everyday life of our planet’s population into a living nightmare that must somehow be coped with.

For many of us, the social distancing that is required is the worst part. It means that grandparents are separated from grandchildren; that people in love cannot touch one another; that all spots where people socialise have to be closed, including churches, schools, theatres, pubs and bingo halls; that we do a version of the dance of death around supermarkets trying to stock up while avoiding other shoppers. Timothy Radcliffe, the former Master of the Dominicans, described touch as ‘the nourishment of our humanity’ yet it has become now the possible vector of a deadly virus.

It is a virus which has the ability to undermine our very humanity given that we are radically relational, caught up in a web of obligations to others, summed up in the term derived from Catholic Social Teaching, ‘the common good’. The South African theologian, Albert Nolan, says that struggling for the common good is actually fulfilling the will of God since it is ‘whatever is best for the whole human family or the whole community of living beings or the whole universe in its grand unfolding. We are not isolated individuals. We are parts of a greater whole and it is the whole that determines the very existence of the parts’.1

The other principle of Catholic Social Teaching which comes to mind is human dignity. We have seen this undermined in the coronavirus era by scuffles in supermarkets over toilet rolls, by the furious stockpiling of essential goods such as hand sanitisers and eggs, and by the richer countries (so far) forgetting the plight of countries in the global South who are trying to fight the spread of the virus and to care for those affected with inadequate health systems.

This last point vividly came into my consciousness recently when the flush on my toilet failed. My factor rang the only plumber working in the area for me but he said it wasn’t an emergency because I could flush with a bucket of water. It had the same effect on me as Proust’s madeleine. My mind went back to the many instances I had used this method of flushing a pan in large parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia because there was no alternative there. It didn’t occur to me in Glasgow because of my being used to a life largely unknown by the majority of the people I had been serving for more than thirty years through working with SCIAF, Caritas Internationalis and the Australian Catholic University. How would the many countries I had visited to see projects supported by SCIAF or Caritas cope, given the financial and infrastructural constraints, and the Western focus on self?

The inequalities we have allowed to grow in our world through what Pope Francis describes as ‘an economy which kills’, are about to cause a huge harvest of death in so-called developing countries unless we respond. SCIAF’s Lenten collection on the Fourth Sunday of Lent was a victim of coronavirus but this official aid agency of the Scottish Catholic Church will still be contributing to a fund to allow their partners to fight against the virus and care for those affected and infected. Yet where is the press coverage about the ravaging of life by the virus in so-called developing countries?

So, in this era of the coronavirus, how should we human beings respond? We have already responded well to our magnificent NHS and welfare staff, the police and all those involved in charities to help the homeless, the vulnerable and the weakest sections of our own society. In this time when we have to keep apart from one another in order to survive and for the virus to be contained, surely our eyes should not be on ourselves alone but be cast further afield to those countries which do not have flushing toilets for the majority, which do not possess the funds to tackle the virus in any meaningful way, where particularly the poorest live cheek by jowl and cannot have the luxury of social distancing.

The journalist, Duncan Graham, writes that in Indonesia, the island of Java has 1,120 people per square kilometre with the capital, Jakarta, twelve times greater. The alleyways of urban slums where many of the poorest live are so narrow that you brush against people sitting in front of their huts. Even the many workers and students live in basic bedrooms with access to a toilet but no kitchens, so they eat at road stalls. No chance of social distancing there. This is how the poor live while the rich can flee to their apartments in Singapore or their Jakarta mansions to save themselves. It is a scenario which those of us who have worked in the aid sector know only too well.

And in this era of the coronavirus, what are people of faith urged to do? The Lord invites us, as Pope Francis said in his Extraordinary Moment of Prayer on 27th March, ‘in the midst of our tempest, ….to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering… and to allow new forms of hospitality fraternity and solidarity[to flourish]’. Now we have the time to help even from our living rooms – to support SCIAF more, to pray especially for those in the global South and to show acts of solidarity with them, reminding our politicians that some of us care not just for our own people but for all humanity.

Dr Duncan MacLaren is the former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis. He is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University.

Prayer and quiet service

‘How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons’.

Pope Francis, ‘Urbi et Orbi message, 27th March

1 Albert Nolan OP, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Boos, 2006 p 188.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.