Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Coronavirus Outbreak

{Note from the blogger … For the second time in the past three months, I am pleased to be posting the published remarks of Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the renowned Buddhist scholar and social activist.  The following essay appears in the latest newsletter from his charitable organization, Buddhist Global Relief.  It speaks eloquently to how we, as liberal Buddhists, can best respond to the ongoing coronavirus crisis …

Responsibly Facing the Pandemic

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Just a month ago, when I left New York for California, the coronavirus was considered a problem that the Chinese would have to grapple with in Hubei province. Today it has reached every continent and has forced major American cities into lockdown. Not only does the virus bring illness, death, and economic hardship to many, but wherever it spreads it sows the seeds of fear and discord. It is fomenting nationalism and racism and divides populations up on the basis of economic, social, and racial privilege. Yet because no one is immune from this virus—not even those with the most sturdy social protections—the dangers it poses to us, personally and collectively, should draw us all together in an unflinching effort to stop its spread. Just as the attack on the U.S. on 9/11 led the whole world to say “Now we are all Americans,” so it is time for us to say “We are all infected with the virus.”

The unified effort needed to end the epidemic may have consequences more far-reaching than merely stopping the spread of the disease. The pain of the crisis might be seen more broadly as a tremendous opportunity, as a wake-up call for us to examine the values and goals that drive us both individually and as a society. The values that dominate in our frenetic, market-based culture are the quest for wealth and power, but these must not be permitted to govern our response to the pandemic. The response called for, rather, must be grounded in a moral vision that gives primacy to people—a primacy that has to be extended universally. We must be able to see every person as a center of intrinsic dignity, to regard every human life as worthy of being cherished, helped, and protected.

To respond in this way, we need to bring together in our own hearts two crucial qualities, compassion and moral conviction, which should function in unison as spurs to responsible action, almost as the inward and outward faces of a single disposition. Both should be guided by wisdom. Wisdom teaches us that our lives are inseparably intertwined. We do not live caged within the confines of our skins, but breathe and move in an intricate net of relationships governed by mutual lines of influence. Most of these lines are invisible to us, but beneath the range of perception our own thoughts, decisions, and actions are constantly exercising an impact on countless others, just as the thoughts and actions of others are having a subtle impact on us.

Compassion is rooted in the recognition that all human beings share the same basic aspiration—the aspiration to be well, happy, and healthy, to be free from suffering and affliction. Under the critical conditions brought on by the virus, compassion must be extended universally, to every person who shares this planet with us, whether they live in China, India, Iran, Kenya, Brazil, on the next street or in the next apartment. The Buddha says that it is hard to find a person who, during this long course of rebirths, has not at some time been our mother or father, our sister or brother. We must apply this lens of understanding—in imagination if not through direct contact—to everyone without distinctions, wishing them to be free from suffering, and resolving to act in ways that safeguard their well-being just as if they were actually our own beloved parents, our own dear siblings.

Guided by wisdom, compassion generates a keen sense of moral responsibility, which operates on two fronts: in protecting ourselves and in protecting others. On the one hand, we must act in ways that prevent us from picking up the virus and falling ill ourselves; on the other, we must avoid behaving in ways that turn us into vectors transmitting the virus to others. Our strongest impact will naturally be on those in our own immediate circle of contacts, but to varying degrees our deeds potentially affect everyone. A careless move on my part here in New York, and within weeks a woman in Spain may feel a compression in her lungs or a man in Lebanon may be admitted to the hospital with a raging fever.

When this sense of moral responsibility is shared widely by people throughout our society, this confers on us a collective power to turn the tide of this pandemic. If we all act responsibly, together we can flatten the growth curve of the virus, so that instead of spiking it levels off and drops. The key is being vigilant, thoughtfully and persistently, not sliding down the slope of heedlessness and complacency.

To succeed in our efforts we must adhere to appropriate guidelines. Experts in public health stress that the key to hindering the spread of the coronavirus is to observe “social distancing,” that is, to maintain physical distance from other people. Ironically, while the natural tendency of a compassionate heart is to draw us toward others to offer our support—by hugging, holding hands, speaking softly, or simply sitting close by—the pandemic teaches us the opposite, that the most effective way we can express compassion is by maintaining a bodily distance. This does not mean that we remain caged in psychological isolation. From the safety of our solitude we can offer others help, consolation, and companionship, sharing our hopes, fears, aspirations, and concerns. But we must do this while keeping physically aloof.

The reason social distancing plays such an important role is because, as the word suggests, a virus spreads virally—not in a linear progression, not by the simple addition of cases, but exponentially, multiplying numbers through expanding lines of transmission. For example, if in the span of a few days one person transmits the virus to three others, and those three interact socially with others, each of them might spread the virus to three more people; so within days the virus has expanded ninefold. This explains the sharp spike of cases in such countries as Spain and Italy and in such busy cities as New York.

Expansion at this rate can have a debilitating impact on our health-care system, increasing the demand on hospital space, medical personnel, and medical supplies—all of which are already under strain. As the number of patients rises, it tends to burden the system beyond its capacity to cope, resulting in escalating numbers of deaths. Doctors and nurses, already poorly equipped, fall ill themselves, reducing the corps of frontline fighters. Thus social distancing becomes the most compassionate thing to do. It literally saves lives, perhaps the lives of our loved ones.

To act ethically, to be morally responsible, we must adhere rigorously to the guidelines proposed by health officials in relation to the ways we interact with others. There is, however, still another side to compassionate action called for in this time of crisis. This involves heeding the call to social justice. Even before the pandemic arrived, some 140 million people in this country were either poor or low income—that’s 40% of the population. Some 30 million do not have any form of health coverage; over 40 million are dependent on food stamps just to feed their families. Now that the virus has struck, the people being hit the hardest are low-wage workers and the poor, those who were already struggling just to subsist from one day to the next.

For many of these, the epidemic will be devastating. These are people who don’t have the monetary resources to meet high medical costs, who aren’t granted paid sick leave, who can’t afford child care when their children are not in school. Low-wage workers can’t take days off when they feel unwell but are compelled to work even when doing so risks making their own condition worse and spreading the virus to others. Struggling just to survive, they now face food shortages, water shutoffs, and eviction from their homes. As we respond compassionately to the crisis, we can’t leave them behind, but must stand up in defense of those who can’t defend themselves, demanding of our elected representatives that such people be given paid sick leave, that their food stamp benefits be expanded rather than cut, that they be allowed to stay in their homes, that their health-care needs in dealing with the virus be met without charge.

In the long run, this epidemic may be teaching us a powerful lesson about the imperative of fundamental social transformation, pushing us to lay the foundations for a more equitable society and a more sustainable world. It is unconscionable that here, in the most affluent nation on earth, the least among us languish in their time of urgent need. The time is ripe for us to see that everyone’s basic human needs are met. Above all, we must replace a profit-driven health-care system with an alternative system built on the premise that health care is a fundamental human right, something to which every person is entitled by reason of their humanity regardless of income and social status.

To bring about the change we need requires concerted action from all of us, beginning with the simple task of contacting our congressional representatives and asking them to support such policies as the “moral agenda” proposed by the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Buddha said that the truly great person lives for his or her own welfare, for the welfare of others, and for the welfare of the whole world. This is one of those special times when we are being given the chance to meet this call to greatness, when we are being asked to act for the welfare of the world. To act in such a way we do not have to perform extraordinary deeds of self-sacrifice or unparalleled feats of creative innovation; we don’t have to be the ones who discover a vaccine for the coronavirus. The requirement, rather, is very simple: to adhere faithfully to the guidelines of social responsibility and to heed the call of social justice. By acting responsibly, even with our own best interest as our motivation, we will be putting compassion into action. We’ll be promoting the good of our loved ones, of our neighbors, of our community and nation, and ultimately the good of the world.

 

2 thoughts on “Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Coronavirus Outbreak

    1. Thanks, Colin! Bodhi is one of my Buddhist heroes – a scholar, an author, and a teacher, yet also someone who finds the time to be deeply engaged with multiple social justice causes.

      Like

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