By Fr Anthony Le Duc SVD
I have recently finished editing a Vietnamese volume entitled “Pastoral Directions Post Covid-19 Pandemic: Lessons from the Signs of the Times.” When I made an announcement about this publication on my social media page, some people raised the question of whether we were in a position to speak about the post-pandemic context. After all, despite many vaccination efforts around the world, with the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and other recently discovered ones that might wreak great havoc, many countries have been experiencing new waves of the pandemic with high rates of infection. In Thailand where I am serving, we are still very much in the midst of the fourth wave, which began around the end of 2020 and does not show any signs of going away anytime soon. For the last month, we have been experiencing new daily cases in the tens of thousands, putting the total rate of infection in Thailand well over one million at this time. Vietnam, where most of the printed books will be distributed, is going through its most devasting wave since the pandemic began. Large cities like Saigon and Hanoi have been undergoing strict lockdowns. Whereas in 2020, Vietnam was praised by the world for its effective effort to keep Covid-19 at very low numbers, it is now seeing daily infections also well over 10,000 and hundreds of deaths each day.
Needless to say, the “post-pandemic” reality which the authors in the book discussed is yet to be seen, and in some cases, seems far off in the future. Many of the authors highlighted this uncertainty in their articles. However, as the world continues to deal with the pandemic and wrestles with the virus, I think it might be important for us to reflect on the word “post-pandemic”. In reality, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is not a new virus, but part of a large family of viruses that causes various health problems, including the common cold. The consequences brought about by sars-cov-2, however, have been much more severe, and for millions of people around the world, have proven to be deadly.
As we can expect the coronavirus to continue to be with us in various forms in the future, there is also a possibility that Covid-19 will never entirely go away, as new variants come into existence that might render past vaccines ineffective. I am not a medical expert, so I won’t make conjectures about when and how Covid-19 will become a part of the human past. There are scientists whose job would be to make these assessments.
What I am concerned with is whether we can think of a “post-pandemic world” despite the ongoing presence of sars-cov-2 and Covid-19 in our midst. In this regard, I think there is hope for us to think of this possibility. More importantly, there is something that each of us can do to hasten the coming of a post-pandemic world.
The first thing that each one of us can do on a practical level to hasten the arrival of the post-pandemic world is to comply with expert recommendations in how to deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, what seems simple on the surface has become extremely controversial and polarising in many countries. Heading towards two years into the pandemic, we still cannot agree on whether or not to wear masks, to get vaccinated, or to minimise large group gatherings that put one at risk for spreading the virus. What should be purely public health responses to the crisis have become issues related to political ideology, economic efficiency, human and religious rights, and so on. When these very complex factors are involved simultaneously, we can expect tremendous difficulty in the process of arriving to any general consensus.
How then can we practically hasten the coming of the post-pandemic world? We can do so by choosing to take a stance of solidarity with one another in the common suffering that the entire humanity is going through. It is almost certain that there is no nook or cranny in the world that the coronavirus has not somehow made its presence felt directly or indirectly. There would be few people in the world who have not in one way or another been affected by the virus. Increasingly, all of us have, or known someone who has, lost a loved one, a business, or a job due to Covid-19.
As we reflect on this crisis, we can easily see that there is no easier situation than the Covid-19 pandemic to be able to feel and be in solidarity with our fellow human beings. Each of us needs to make our choices of how to practically respond to the pandemic from this stance of solidarity, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking deeply within our conscience. If we discern our actions from this stance of conscience directed solidarity rather than the stance of ideology, I believe there will be a tremendous difference in what we end up doing as individuals and as communities to deal with the crisis.
The second way to hasten the coming of the post-pandemic world is not necessarily by eliminating the coronavirus from our lives. As I have said above, there is a possibility that this virus may never completely go away due to its persistence and mutations. However, the eradication of the virus needs not be a condition for experiencing the post-pandemic world. Since early 2020 until now, we have observed that the pandemic is not just about a virtually invisible virus spreading around the globe, on land and on sea, getting people sick and disrupting every aspect of our daily lives. The pandemic has also included devastating social, political, religious and psychological tolls on humanity: mistrust and fear among people, both friends and strangers; scapegoating of religious and minority groups; intensification of division due to disinformation and malinformation; exacerbation of the crisis due to widespread misinformation; the use of the pandemic as excuse to heighten oppressive political control; and consolidation of social injustices due to unequal access to food, health services, vaccines, digital technology and education among countries and peoples.
We can clearly see that the Covid-19 pandemic is not merely a health crisis, but, like many other dilemmas plaguing humanity at this time, also a social and spiritual one. Stepping out of this pandemic, therefore, is not simply about stepping up vaccination drives in order to achieve herd immunity. It is not necessarily about opening up cities and countries to tourism and international travel. It is not about returning to a mask-free life (in fact, in many countries, people often wore masks when going about even before the pandemic).
Taking the mask off our face is not a definitive sign of the end of the pandemic. It only helps us to breathe easier and keeps us from having an uneven tan when going about in the sun. In fact, many people refuse to wear masks, and yet, we are still very much in the midst of one of the greatest crises in contemporary human history. The post-pandemic world comes when we can take the mask off our heart and our mind, so that we can understand and feel one another’s pain and suffering, to desire self-transformation and healing, to trust in the goodwill of each other, and to be in solidarity with one another; treading forward, fixing what has been broken, rebuilding what has been destroyed, and rebinding what has been disconnected. If we can begin to do this, we can truly hope for the speedy arrival of the post-pandemic world (not to mention, ultimately, the Kingdom of God). If not, there is a real chance that even if someday, despite scientists having found an effective method to eliminate the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19, the pandemic would still be very much with us.