Covid-19 is spreading at great speed throughout the human population of the world. While Europe and the USA are reporting the highest number of infections, all countries are affected. If the disease spreads in the same way everywhere, there can be no doubt that the poorest in the world will suffer the most, directly in loss of life and then indirectly, much more severely, in loss of livelihoods that were already precarious. Generally, people are in a state of shock, although those who have to rush about in order to cope with the emergency cannot yet feel the full effects of the shock.
The saying is well-known that ‘death comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes’. This global emergency should remind us that we are all equal in our fragility and vulnerability. The virus does not appear to discriminate by race or nationality or social rank or economic privilege. If discrimination appears at all, it is in our responses to it. In the UK, people complain to the government that a few hundreds of its citizens holidaying abroad are stranded, unable to get home. In India, many millions of the poorest workers in the big cities have lost their jobs and are moving on foot, in dense crowds, with little by way of supplies of food or water, to get back to their villages. These millions have no-one to complain to.
The situation we suddenly find ourselves in should rouse us to a better awareness of our commonality, our being the same, especially in our need, our vulnerability. It should rouse those who normally pay no mind to the suffering of the poorest in their own societies, let alone the suffering of the poor in countries far away, to a fuller, urgent understanding that the pitiless economic practices dominant in our world are not intended – and were never intended – for the common good, the health and prosperity of all, but instead for the increase and concentration of the wealth of the few. Sure, people are willing to come out in the evening and clap the health-workers and others doing essential tasks like transporting and selling food supplies. But when all of this is over, and food-deliverers, shop-workers or health-workers ask for improved terms and conditions for their work, will policy-makers and the public cheer them then? Will the big TV media still present them with the sympathy and the admiration so evident now? Is it not more likely that today’s heroes will be told: No, no, no; now is not the time; first the economy must be set back to ‘normal’, only then, maybe, we can think about justice and fairness, and the common good. But the ‘normal’ is what is so pitilessly unfair to the poorest and weakest among us.
From time to time I hear reports of people unable to cope with their fear or the lockdown and committing suicide. Far more frequently, I hear the bold claim that we are going to ‘defeat this invisible enemy’, the coronavirus. Neither of these is the right response. People have come through plagues before; societies as a whole, or humans as a whole, do survive. So, we can hope that we will come through this trouble also, despite its scale. But if we do, our survival, as individuals or as societies, will not be due entirely to us. Certainly, as individuals, we will have no idea, why we survived but not our neighbours nor some of our loved ones.
As believers, Muslims should remember that whatever happens around us is encompassed by the will and power, the knowledge and wisdom, of God. We should neither be desperate nor arrogant. Rather, we should entrust ourselves to God, certain that what He has willed for us is what is good for us, here and hereafter. We should turn to Him with stronger attentiveness, seeking His favour and forgiveness, and resolve to do what pleases Him, beginning with a sustained dedication to caring for others and assisting them in whatever way we can. It is in this frame of mind that, individually and collectively, we should hope that a cure can be found, and support the efforts of the experts looking for the cure ‘to defeat this invisible enemy’. The Prophet said, whenever God sends a disease, He also sends a cure for it. So, our hope and effort is not a baseless wishfulness. It is based on the best authority.
On the same authority, we should apply the principle that we must both trust in God and exert ourselves in the right ways, and also develop our competences to prepare for and deal with the difficulties we encounter in this life. Unfortunately, we tend too much to make allowance for our will and forget to make allowance for God’s will. We assume that if we have the means to attain a particular end, we are sure to attain that end. That is our ‘normal’ in this world. So, if we intend travelling, we have only to buy the right ticket and we are sure of reaching our intended destination. We forget that the ‘normal’ is only possible because all the background conditions are already in place, and the background conditions include the whole universe with all the mathematically exact laws and the finely-tuned values that make its processes so regular and dependable. Surprises are beneficial, both great calamities and little disruptions, in that they enable us to remember our dependence on our Lord.
Every day people are losing their loved ones. It is a time of pain and grief, for those who die and those who survive. Death is a separation. But in this particular situation, the pain of separation is particularly severe because we cannot comfort those who are ill, cannot attend their last moments; the dying die without the nearness of those who were their nearest. Then, we are not permitted to pay the respect due to the deceased of washing and dressing and perfuming the body in preparation for its journey. We are not permitted to attend the funeral and burial of those who have died. And we cannot visit and gather with the relatives to offer them our condolences and consolations. In this heartbreaking situation it is all the more important to be strong, patient, composed and dignified, in our loss.
It is well to remember that people before us and even in our own time have had to endure and survive tougher situations than these. Also, there remain to us many favours for which we owe thanks to God, if only we were able to be mindful of them. They are indeed too abundant to count. Just to begin with we are able to perceive and feel what is happening; we are not struck dumb, we have powers of thought and speech. We are able to make du`a, we can petition God, we can turn to Him for solace. Our time is not ended; Sha`ban will be followed by Ramadan. It may be that, God willing, we shall know the blessing of it, and benefit from its disciplines. The corona-virus has not deprived us of the Qur’an. Shall we not then recite it and be comforted and uplifted?
If we can face the pandemic in this frame of mind, we may be deserving of God’s promise that He is ma`a s-sabirin, with those who are patient and steadfast. We may be deserving, during this pandemic, of behaving in the obviously right ways and not the obviously wrong ways. We may, instead of buying more than we need of food and other supplies, and hoarding them fearfully, try harder to find out what our neighbours are in need of, those who have no means of getting to the shops, or no money to spend in them. We may, instead of worrying about our own troubles, worry about the troubles of others. In short, we have the opportunity to live like decent human beings, and make that decency ‘the normal’ in our communities and societies.