The coronavirus pandemic is a global war against an enemy we cannot see with the naked eye. It has provoked considerable anxiety and frustration, irrespective of one’s wealth, status, or ethnicity.
The virus respects no-one. In fact, those most vulnerable are the elderly who may have pre-existing morbidities such as diabetes or hypertension. Anyone can get it, but it does not kill the young at the same rate as it does the elderly.
For those who recover, it would have brought painful and debilitating illness for some, requiring hospitalisation and drastic interventions by health care workers.
To keep most of us untouched and alive, societies everywhere have had to take drastic measures to ‘lock down’ communities and limit social interaction to prevent community transmission of the virus.
All gatherings in numbers have been proscribed, and that includes our Sunday and daily Masses, and all Church activities where we congregate.
Apart from health care workers and other essential personnel, citizens here and indeed everywhere have been asked to work from home where that is possible. Schools have been closed. Sporting and entertainment events have been postponed or cancelled. Public transportation has been curtailed. Borders have been closed. Our lives have been profoundly affected.
As communities hunker down and we view the images from around the world, the scenes are almost apocalyptic— deserted squares and stadiums, empty airports, eerily quiet streets in normally busy cities patrolled by police and army personnel, frantic activity on wards and in makeshift hospitals, and hourly news programmes announcing the spiralling death toll.
In this time, the words of Jesus in today’s gospel (Jn 11:4) when informed that Lazarus is gravely ill, are wholly appropriate: “When Jesus heard this he said, ‘This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it’.”
Far more significant than the bodily illness and death caused by the virus is the spiritual illness and spiritual death of our modern lives. Crime and violence, inequality and poverty, racism, abuse of women, children and the elderly, social injustice, the destruction of the environment in the pursuit of fleeting material gain, are all features of societies everywhere. These features are manifestations of a spiritual sickness.
The paradox of the coronavirus pandemic is that in visiting bodily illness and death upon us, God is inviting us to restore our spiritual health. Many people have noted that: our elderly, all too often forgotten, are now the centre of our attention; crime and violence have declined; the practice of social distancing is elevating and reinforcing the value and importance of social relationships, especially the family; pollution in major cities around the world has fallen dramatically; in closing borders we are really emphasising how connected we are across the world; and that the realisation that we are all in this together needs to resonate beyond the resolution of the immediate crisis.
This is no apocalypse. Human ingenuity and cooperation will enable us to overcome the pandemic of the coronavirus. But we need to see God’s mercy in how it has struck, and we need to hear God speaking to us, asking us to restore our spiritual health, and inviting us to see that in the midst of crisis and anxiety, His grace is everywhere.