Pandemic Darkens the World: What Good Is THAT?*

A little more physical distancing needed now, of course: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres fist-bumps African colleagues. (Wish I knew who they were.) I choose to love this image. (photo courtesy UN)

*(4th in the “Silver Linings”series, which began here in my house, and ends here, on Earth.)   [8-minute read]

In some ways, finding the bright side of the Covid-19 crisis is hardest at the international level. It was easiest inside the four walls of my own home, and required successively more vision and awareness as I moved from civic good news to national bright spots to this challenge: does a global perspective offer much in the way of hopefulness? I must say: I can be a gloomy sort of Gus. I lean in to sadness and uncertainty and so many hands (“on the other other hand…”) in my preferred movies and books and songs. (Dar Williams and Her Deep Well of Sadness¹ pretty dependably make me weepy.) Still, my Thinking Cap has a propeller on it, blowing me ever toward possibility and a belief in the eventual triumph of common decency and basic good sense. So.

                   ¹ This is not the name of her band. She mostly flies solo. (And she’s funny, too.) Back to our regularly scheduled post.

I concluded Part 3, which focussed on Canadian candles in the wind and gloom, with some final thoughts on internationalism. We in the North pride ourselves, at least insulated little pockets of us do, on being a UN-friendly, outward-looking nation. We’ve always tended to be a bit more restrained in our flag-waving than the Americans are, though they’ve rubbed off on us uncomfortably (for me, at any rate) in that way as well. Internationalist visionary and global community-builder Shoghi Effendi – no Canuck, though he did marry one – argued powerfully about the negative side of nationalism. No problem, he wrote, with “a sane and intelligent patriotism”, especially to prevent over-centralization and an overbearing global authority, but between the wars he fingered unrestrained nationalism as one of three “false gods” that threatened human progress and peace. (Communism, of the Soviet flavour at least, and racial-superiority doctrines of every stripe were the other two.) Well, please pardon me for getting all amateurishly philosophical on you. But the brightest of the silver linings behind the darkness of a global pandemic touch on the following: the extent to which we think globally, act cooperatively, and generally show signs that we get that we’re all in this together. Guided by Shoghi Effendi and others, I’ve learned to see humanity as having an extended, collective bar mitzvah. Our maturity as a species grows with our understanding that we are truly citizens of a shared and single planet.  

That’s big and heavy. Never fear. I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious signs of goodness in a bad time for humanity.

  • ALL THE WORLD’S OTHER PROBLEMS HAVE MAGICALLY GONE AWAY! When was the last time you heard about nuclear proliferation, terrorism, hunger, poverty in the Global South, or tensions between North and South Korea, or, like, the Middle East, huh? Am I right or am I — (Oh. Right. That stuff’s all out there even if the news doesn’t have room for it anymore. And is that a silver lining in itself? Not really.)²
                   ² So ends the comedy part of the show! Thanks, you’re a beautiful crowd!

Well, that’s not exactly a silver lining. Let me start over.

  • THE PLANETARY ECO-CATASTROPHE IS OVER! HAS BEEN SLOWED DOWN. A LITTLE BIT. FOR NOW.  Is it just me, or am I breathing better? It’s hard to see it clearly in a small, non-industrial city like Ottawa, but Los Angeles smog is vastly reduced. The canals of Venice haven’t been this clean in forever. Industrialized Chinese cities oppressed by a heavy blanket of thickened air – with a level of particulate air pollution we can barely imagine in the West – are breathing easier and seeing farther than they have in many years. Even scientists studying these changes don’t necessarily want to celebrate – Look, everybody! Pandemics are good for global health! is not a sane position to take, for anybody – but we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that industrial slowdowns aren’t ALL bad. This doesn’t mean that the climate crisis has been brought under control, far otherwise, but it does give us some not-so-subtle hints: first, that “back to normal” clearly isn’t what we should, in the largest sense, be hoping for; second, especially for the environmental nihilists, these improvements remind us that big changes are possible, even when they’re forced on us. Even being compelled to do the humane and right things isn’t all bad!

  • INTERNATIONAL FORMS OF BIGOTRY ARE DENOUNCED. A certain He Who Would Be King and the nation that he leads have been rebuked. Powerful people have tried to sway the international conversation on Covid-19 toward a certain kind of victim-blaming. (The rising Empire of the East has certainly not been without fault, don’t get me wrong. Their lack of openness to truth has cost their own population dearly, and the terrible ripples still cross the globe.) However, this has been met by widespread abhorrence, this ignorant and scabrous insistence on referring to “the Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus”. International leaders would have none of it. Domestic resistance to the targeting of Asian-Americans has been justly outraged – and effective. This kind of lazy, hateful language is no longer heard, at least from the bullier pulpits. The Spanish flu was never the fault of Spain, it was just identified there. These kinds of mis-identifications are not tolerated anymore in global discourse. So there.


  • WE HEAR THE W.H.O. We are not fooled by the shocking efforts of the oligarchs running the republic just south of us to deflect attention from their own bungling by blaming – and defunding, in the midst of a global pandemic (!!) – the World Health Organization. This won’t fly, in the long run. Has the WHO been perfect? Hardly. How could we expect it, given how dependent the Organization is on funding from national governments? But the fact is, there *is* such a global agency, and it sounded the warning of “pandemic” earlier than most governments were ready to hear and act upon it. There *is* a United Nations, whose Secretary-General made a ringing call for a global ceasefire when many thought such a thing useless and silly. (Which made it all the more heroic, not to mention prophetic.) We *do* have a growing, ever-more-capable and all-the-more necessary infrastructure of institutions that can help us deal with crises that are beyond the capacity and perspective of any individual nation. That doesn’t stop me from being bored at home. It won’t house the homeless, or rescue national economies, but on the world scene this matters. Hugely.


  • NATIONS HELPING NATIONS. No thinking person would argue that national governments are free of self-interest, but listen: global consciousness and caring have grown such that the idea of helping other countries more hard-hit than our own is another internationalist ideal whose time has come. This is clear. Predictably, though, narrow-minded bugles complained when we sent medical and other resources (and Canada wasn’t alone in this) to China; we also did this when horrific earthquakes struck Sichuan (we tend to misspell it “Szechuan”) province. But now that China has recovered some of its balance, it famously has sent doctors and supplies to Italy, and has also done so in significant measure for us in Canada — just as it sent aid and resources to Haiti when its devastating earthquake struck. Cynicism is easy, and no doubt there is (enlightened?) self-interest on the part of all nations, often including our own, but that’s not the whole story. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Freud is supposed to have said. And sometimes humanitarian aid is just humanitarian aid, peer to peer, neighbour to neighbour. Wouldn’t you do the same for your stricken neighbours?

  • GLOBALLY, WE’RE GETTING ALL GROWN UP. We’ve seen plenty that Red-Alerts us to the devastating consequences of national rivalries and ambitions: World Wars, the bitter after-effects of colonialism, and frustratingly slow progress in the international response to the climate crisis, to name a few obvious plagues. National governments have too often acted like adolescent boys, their courage stoked with booze, strutting and threatening each other in turf wars that are by turns ridiculous and destructive. But exceptional nations, the ones that persist in trying to unite their citizens by making them fear all outsiders, are only proving the rule. We’ve seen it from a wide-angled view over the last 75 years: international cooperation is a necessity, we’re getting more and more used to the idea, and as we look around with greater understanding, we begin to see the benefits that we are reaping. Freer international movement and trade. Reduced global poverty. The near-elimination of certain diseases that once decimated entire countries. The open questioning of the rights of nations to make war on other nations. And then came Covid-19, only the latest in a series of plagues, but until now the most challenging in a century. And in this seventy-fifth anniversary year of the United Nations, joint efforts among the countries of the world are clearly The Way To Go. Acknowledging our interdependence is serene, wise and courageous, and yes, it would be better if we didn’t require the odd global crisis to accept it. But here we are.


I could go on. (I invite you to add your examples of light in the global gloom in the comment section.)

As in our own homes, as in our neighbourhoods and municipalities, as in “our home and native land”, so it is in the wide world. The pandemic is dreadful, but it also gives us pause, opens doors of opportunity, and invites us to transformation, to make this change (or that one) that suddenly and obviously is so needed and so possible. It takes a lot of maturity and perspective to see things this way, and believe me, even an old Dad like me can’t summon that grown-up mojo all the time! But the Baha’i community, which was guided for 36 years in its planetary development by Shoghi Effendi, has continued to console me with its adherence to his vision.

Shoghi Effendi, well before World War 2, argued that the maturity of the entire human race, its coming of age, could be traced in its growing acceptance and embrace of One Big Idea: the oneness of the human race. He sketched the outlines of “finally, a world community in which the fury of a capricious and militant nationalism will have been transmuted into an abiding consciousness of world citizenship”. Call me a weirdo idealist silver-lining-addicted crank of dimwitted optimism if you like, but isn’t that what is happening these years? Isn’t this, at least in part, what a global pandemic in the year 2020 is harshly teaching us to see, and all the more clearly? The “one human family” perspective is spoken of in Shoghi Effendi’s epic 1938 letter to the then-microscopic Baha’i communities in the Americas. He also lists the destructive forces and “false gods” which – uselessly, he asserts – try to hold back the tide of human maturity and fulfillment:   

The theories and policies, so unsound, so pernicious, which deify the state and exalt the nation above mankind, which seek to subordinate the sister races of the world to one single race, which discriminate between the black and the white, and which tolerate the dominance of one privileged class over all others—these are the dark, the false, and crooked doctrines….

“The world is, in truth, moving on towards its destiny. The interdependence of the peoples and nations of the earth, whatever the leaders of the divisive forces of the world may say or do, is already an accomplished fact. Its unity in the economic sphere is now understood and recognized. The welfare of the part means the welfare of the whole, and the distress of the part brings distress to the whole…Adversity…[will] stir the conscience of the world, disillusion the masses, precipitate a radical change in the very conception of society, and coalesce ultimately…mankind into one body, single, organically united, and indivisible.”

Well, that’s a helluva lot more than just a silver lining.There’s a golden future in all these hills, even if they’re sometimes painful to climb.

Thanks for reading.

Comments (2)

  1. Michael Freeman

    While Shoghi Effendi spoke of the “oneness of mankind”, North America’s Indigenous people looked to the interconnectedness of everything on, in, or to do with this earth. Chief Seattle’s “Web Of Life” speech in the mid-1800’s speaks to the thought that what happens to one part of the web will and must affect another part. Buddha spoke of that single drop of water dripping into a river forever changing that river, in ways immeasurable and imperceptible by human cognition, but changed nonetheless.

    Looking to the lessons of the world around us, the spider’s web, the single drop of water, the migration patterns of the seemingly insignificant ant. Why is it that learning is so hard for the, arguably, smartest species on earth?

    You say that globally, we are growing up. Yes, possibly. But that growth may be as imperceptible as the water droplet in a river. Too many are still willing to play partisan politics, or even worse, narcissistic egoism to say that the world is grown up. Contrast those politicians and world leaders with the likes of Jacinda Ardern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Finland’s prime minister and the leaders of her opposition, and you run from despair to hope. Maybe once the old and tired guard of the old and tired politics wane away, maybe then that growth that you speak of will become visible to the discerning eye. Jacinda Ardern’s approach to governance has been described as oriented to empathy and compassion. OAC’s relentless attack on the power-broker’s playbook has upset old world comfort.

    COVID has forced politics to take a back seat — well, in Canada anyway. Maybe not even a back seat, but perhaps not as prominent a seat as it once had.

  2. Paul Joseph Desailly

    [Ed. note: Mr. Desailly is a Baha’i scholar, so his commentary is rather specialized, but interesting nonetheless.]

    Citations from the pen of the Guardian in your splendid article merit consultation IMO:
    (a) Communism is perhaps abhorred by Shoghi Effendi primarily because it’s rooted in atheism. The Soviet version became virulently atheistic under Stalin around the time that the Guardian warned us of its extreme danger, i.e. that man arrogates to himself what’s right and what’s not. (Mutatis mutandis: men and women.) In regard to religion, one finds distinctions nowadays between, for example, Chinese and Vietnamese variants.
    (b) Man’s coming of age and proceeding to maturity. Three factors precipitating this noble aspiration merit much more consulting: (1) emergence of a science described as that “divine philosophy” which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements; (2) no one will accept to bear the weight of kingship; (3) the selection of a single auxiliary language for all on earth to use. Given that the Universal House of Justice [international Baha’i governing council] assigns to this, in its foremost announcement to the peoples of the world, “the most urgent attention”, it seems possible that the language issue might or should soon come under scrutiny by the world at large and by Baha’i academics.

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