Homeless people settle in at a Las Vegas parking lot. CNS photo/Steve Marcus, Reuters

Gerry Turcotte: This is a fight for our shared humanity

  • May 13, 2020

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t write a COVID-19 column.

In the midst of what is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime event for most of us, I knew we would be besieged with news item after news item, column after column, analyzing this extraordinary situation from every angle. And while that has proven true, it is similarly impossible to ignore this event and to turn my attention elsewhere.

The truth is, we are consumed by this plague, whether or not we have contracted the virus. Indeed, COVID-19 isn’t just a respiratory bug; it isn’t just a crippling biological entity. It is also an all-consuming cultural phenomenon — an attack on the very things that arguably make us most human: our interconnectedness with others.

The ultimate price of this coronavirus is certainly the extraordinary loss of life and, compounding this, the even more horrific number of infections leading to serious incapacitation. 

The images of empty, normally bustling cities and landmarks are no less extraordinary. Trafalgar Square and the Taj Mahal, Paris and Indonesia, Montreal and Banff: sites normally filled to bursting lie empty.

Perhaps the most devastating image of all is the religious sacred sites sitting vacant, from Mecca to the Holy Land, although the image of Pope Francis celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square with only a single priest to support him was by far the most haunting sight. I had been metres away from him in November and even then I couldn’t close the gap to meet him face to face, such was the sea of people.

The Pope has spoken of the virus as possibly being nature’s way of finally alerting us to our indifference to the world around us. “I don’t know if this is the revenge of nature,” he said, “but they are certainly nature’s responses.”

Images of cities in India and China that can finally be viewed from space because pollution has been dispersed remind us how thoroughly and how completely we impact our planet, but also how quickly nature is prepared to reassert herself.

Wildlife that is normally shy of people has slowly started to populate our towns: foxes in back yards, mountain goats ambling down alpine streets.

All of this, of course, is but one aspect of a virus that has taken our reality by storm and taught us how fragile and dependent we all are. These are important lessons to learn. But in this lesson on fragility is an even more important insight — which is how much we are all interconnected and how much we take for granted.

One of Pope Francis’ comments struck me particularly hard. He noted that the poor should be housed in hotels, not parking lots. In seeking context for what prompted this observation I learned that he had seen images of homeless people given shelter in Las Vegas parking lots while tens of thousands of empty hotel rooms in the closed casinos lay empty. It was a sobering observation.

There are really two ways to look at the impact of this pandemic. One is to be terrified that a virus that started in a wet market in Wuhan could so quickly paralyze the world. This is our dark fragility narrative in which our connection is a curse that weakens.

The other way to see this, however, is to understand that just as our interconnectedness makes us vulnerable, so too can it make us stronger. We have perfected a new form of tribalism, of special interest groups, wherein nation states, isolated communities, political factions, all stand separated by difference — by increasingly specialized demands, needs, definitions. This virus has shown that these don’t matter; that we are one vulnerable organism open to attack. And so we need to pull together.

More importantly, if this is true, then we need to reach out to the margins and recognize those who we have allowed to drift from view through our own apathy, neglect, callousness or forgetfulness.

Over 70 million people have been forcibly displaced in 2020 — the equivalent of uprooting the United Kingdom! Tens of millions of people are homeless or seeking asylum. There are tens of thousands of under-nourished and terrified children in so-called first-world countries alone, homeless or in shelters. There is no social distancing. We are all connected. Only indifference keeps us apart.

In H.G. Wells’ remarkable The War of the Worlds (1897), the invading Martians are defeated when they take their first breath of Earth’s air: “There are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow.”

In a different sense, perhaps that same infinitesimal bug will save us now by reminding us that the margins are the centre — that we fight not for our special interest, but for humanity. Or, put another way, that our shared humanity is our special interest. That’s surely a battle that we should all be prepared to join.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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