In the past few weeks, the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has gone global affecting almost all countries, societies, and health systems. It is disrupting varying spheres of our social, political, or economical lives. It is also intruding into our spiritual domain. Spirituality is the foundation of human existence and getting more attention in Global Health recently. Christina Puchalski et al. (2009) define it as: “Spirituality is that aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred”.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, COVID-19 silently offers us an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual impact it has on the world and our communities. In this broad sense, the spiritual impact is currently not unequivocally positive; however, I’m convinced that in the end, humanity, as a whole, can take a spiritual leap forward.
Diseases have often (though not always accurately) been linked with poor living conditions, social strata, or geographical regions/countries. HIV/AIDS has been associated with individual high-risk behaviour, cholera with poor hygiene, or TB with poverty. There are regional associations: Great Plague (17th–18th century) with Europe, Ebola with African countries, SARS with Asian countries, and MERS with Middle Eastern countries.
In its initial days, COVID-19 was associated with China, but in a short span, it has travelled the globe, crossing national boundaries without any visa needed. Irrespective of the pandemic stage, today it is everyone’s problem. It should thus leave no space for stigmatization of a particular country or ethnic group. However, it faces huge counteracting forces which push in a ‘non-spiritual’ direction: stigmatization, blaming, and scapegoating, capitalized on by populist politicians (and also sometimes linked to geopolitics, see for example the current US-China controversy). This goes totally against the idea of ‘we’re all in this together’. Prof. Addiss quoting Dr. Bill Foege (2012) in his article states, ‘Everything is local and everything is global. Global health is not ‘over there’—it’s right here’. COVID-19 has removed barriers of ‘we and they’, ‘here and there’, and stirs up the value of belongingness amongst us. It has demonstrated that it sees our globe as one single interdependent community, as strong as the weakest link. We have realised COVID-19 is the problem of ‘our community’—it is right here.
Coronavirus has created fear among people, some are shattered, some turned hopeless, some jobless, some fled back to home countries, etc. It makes it difficult for humans to be fully ‘social’ (as we are, by nature). Without any vaccine or cure against COVID-19, controlling the spread of infection largely rests on a unified response from the general population for the time being. Restrictions have been made on travel, tours, social gatherings, public functions, and people are urged to follow basic hygiene, not to meet others or maintain distance when they meet. This is not to truly distance people from each other (although it is in the ‘physical’ sense, and restrictions are often painful). Still, the current situation also unites people in an emotional and spiritual sense by providing opportunities to care for each other. In many countries, you indeed see societies pulling themselves together now (e.g., via the national anthem, or just singing together out of their balconies/windows), uniting them to face this common threat. As asserted by Prof. Addiss (2016:108), ‘Global health embodies a spirit of interconnectedness and it recognizes the need for global cooperation to solve these problems.’ Social distancing may raise concerns over the cohesiveness of our society, community, or family, yet it is crucial to stop the spread. The essence of these lockdowns is also to protect other (especially older) citizens, who run the highest risk, together with people with underlying health conditions. COVID-19 has aroused the spirit of unity and interconnectedness in the health systems of several countries and has been animating and coordinating the decisions and actions at national, state/provincial, and local levels. It demands global cooperation—unified action in the interest of wider population health and as the WHO Director himself said from the very beginning, “Solidarity is the key to defeating COVID-19”. The young and old need to care for each other, people with good health should care about the people with health conditions, and obviously, countries should also care for each other in this now global pandemic. In other words, we need intergenerational solidarity, cross-national solidarity, etc …. Along similar lines, the Secretary-General of the United Nations appealed for a global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’, yesterday. He urged “the warring parties to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against COVID-19: the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind”.
Evgeniia Erenchinova et al. (2018) write spiritual values are “creative and constructive mechanisms working to stabilize the society, to prevent its destruction, this is their regularity.” Compassion, kindness, sympathy, and caring are some of those spiritual values that drive humanity in its basic form. Compassion desires to separate other beings from suffering. Often these values get overshadowed in our intellectual insight and strive for practical wisdom, yet beneath lie a love and care component for fellow beings.
The WHO’s document “Mental health considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak” urges us to “be empathetic to those who got affected’, not to address people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “the diseased”, and to “protect yourself and be supportive to others”. The pandemic changes our lookout towards others in our global community. It forces us to be compassionate, and ‘protect people we know, but also people we do not know or even, possibly, care about’ including elders, economically weak, and those marginalized in their own countries.
The jobs of frontline health workers (including nurses), cleaners, or delivery men and women are usually not appreciated and often go unrecognized. At present, they are the ones who are not working from home in the interest of others. COVID-19 changes our perspective to value their hard work and helps us see them with respect and dignity.
COVID-19 thus stirs up humanity among many people, but at the same time, there are also negative actors at work, trying to capitalize on the emergency to make huge profits. ‘Humanity’ is not stirred among everybody: see for example the widespread ‘hoarding’ of essential supplies without caring for the needs of others.
Human beings tend to turn to prayer in a time of crisis. Unfortunately, religious places including mosques, churches, or temples are being closed. The weekly Friday prayers banned, masses suspended, and rituals curtailed. People may turn hopeless: “Oh God, where do we go now”. Getting through these testing times will require a lot of ‘spiritual innovation’. Amid this situation, people are encouraged to stay back, pray from home, and use the liturgy and prayer resources provided.
I would like to draw here on my Christian background. After receiving a letter from the Bishop stating no worships were allowed in churches on Sundays until further notice, an elder in my congregation commented, “never in my 77 years of life, did I see Church being closed for worships on Sundays”. The Bishop insisted to continue to uphold those affected in prayers. Often the ordained minister/pastor plays a major role in conducting Church services. However, a call to pray from home transfers greater responsibility to non-ordained members. Praying from home will bring in a faithful realisation that all can have access to God through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:18), and all have the priestly responsibility of interceding for other people to God (1 Peter 2:9). It will be a time for understanding that, similar to fellowships in physical Church buildings, family members praying together in their homes is also the real Church (Body of Christ) in a spiritual sense. The call to pray from home equally assures God’s presence in line with what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew 18:20: ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. Such a divine responsibility needs to be handled with faith. COVID-19 pushes us hard to rekindle our faith to see God’s intervention in overpowering the disastrous effect of coronavirus (Psalm 91).
To sum up, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us we are—deep down—spiritual beings, whether we realize it or not, and makes us recognize that the problem of coronavirus is right here at the face of our global community; it’s a challenge that requires global cooperation and unity, a component of compassion to alleviate suffering, and a greater responsibility to exercise our faith to witness divine intervention. Though the COVID-19 crisis has brought the world to a halt and sadly, the health and economic impact will be disastrous, I feel that from a spiritual angle, the pros will outweigh the cons making us a global community with spiritual connectivity.
In a way, COVID-19 is also a battle for our souls, a “spiritual battle for the 21st century”. It’s a battle we will win, I reckon.