Religion, Culture and COVID-19

by Jonathan Golden

In this edition of Reflections, Jonathan Golden, Director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, addresses the implications of alarming trends to “point fingers” and assign blame for our current pandemic.

The COVID-19 virus is “double blind” in the sense that it sees not who it infects nor is it seen by its victims.  Still, as social beings, we humans have a hard time avoiding our tendency to put all phenomena into social categories.  In doing so, how can we ensure that we don’t let the search for answers and explanations lead us to bigotry and xenophobia?

Crises such as these tend to bring out the best in people.  It is truly amazing to see the courage and selflessness of so many healthcare workers working around the clock at their own peril to save lives.  Unfortunately, we have seen some instances where this pandemic seems to have brought out people’s worst.  Deliberate efforts to brand it as the “Chinese Virus”, for instance, have already had disastrous impact on people across America.

There is a famous saying about pointing fingers: when you point one finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there was nothing Spanish about the Spanish Flu.[1]  That unfortunate nomenclature was Spain’s “reward” for being the first to openly report on it.  The origin of that pandemic, which killed tens of millions, is still unknown today, but evidence suggests that the first cases appeared on a military base in Kansas.  Similarly, the H1N1 influenza, aka the “swine flu” pandemic that infected over 1 billion people and killed over half a million, was first reported in the U.S. and may have originated in factory farmed pigs in the United States.

Of course, it is vital that we do our best to trace the origins of any pandemic: this information is critical to helping us understand the current outbreak and to preventing the next one.  But jumping to conclusions is unhelpful at best, and, at worst, can create a whole new set of problems.

In 2015, the WHO offered clear guidelines for naming viruses, calling on scientists, national leaders and media outlets to follow “best practices in naming new human infectious diseases to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”  They point out that names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ are dangerous in that they stigmatize certain identity groups and communities or economic sectors.  As Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, WHO, compellingly observed, “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Unsurprisingly, calling the COVID-19 virus the Chinese Virus has already had a serious impact on the Asian American community. According to a review of news articles by San Francisco State University, in a one-month period (Feb. 9 and March 7) there was a 50% increase in the number of articles reporting anti-Asian discrimination related to the coronavirus.  And it appears the number of incidents is growing as over 150 cases have been reported on a site set up just last week to track incidents by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.[2]  There have been reports of anti-Asian attacks in the subway, in restaurants, on the streets of America.  A writer for The New Yorker was verbally assaulted in front of her own home.

Coronavirus-related hate has found its way to anti-Semites as well.  The Anti-Defamation League reports multiple examples of extremists using the pandemic to advance anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which have leaped from dark web exchanges to circulation on mainstream social media platforms.  Some insinuate that Jews are responsible for the spread of the virus and are somehow profiting from it, while others suggest it is a Jewish media hoax/hype intended to frighten the public, and undermine the president.  One message on the Telegram encrypted messaging service stated: “Finally! Science has discovered a cure for the most insidious disease of our time … Jewishness.”   The FBI is warning Jewish organizations and offices that neo-Nazi extremists who are infected may try to intentionally spread the disease to others.  They are threatening to infect police as well.  Sadly, it seems things have changed little since the medieval plague known as the Black Death, where Jews of Europe were accused of spreading the disease, with brutal attacks on those who survived.

The truth is, no one person or people are responsible for this nightmare.  Mistakes have been made and opportunities missed.  But no Asian, Jew, or anyone else should be blamed.  The great irony is that across America, and around the world, Asians, Jews and people of all races and religions, are risking their lives on the front lines of the current health crisis, while working tirelessly behind the scenes in search of treatments and vaccines.  It is noteworthy that even in the Middle East, a region we often associate with ethno-religious conflict, Muslims, Jews, Christian, Druze, are working together to save lives.[3]

We should also stop short of reading religious meaning, some type of theodicy, into this natural disaster.  The COVID-19 virus is a soulless, amoral entity that strikes at people of all ages, religious and races.  Anyone suggesting that God is somehow doing this to punish people needs to reexamine their faith.  All of this speaks to the human need for answers.  The invisible nature of this “enemy” is one of the things that makes it so unsettling.  It looms everywhere, but still we cannot point to it.  And so, the pointing begins.

With all of us working together, a cure for COVID-19 will someday be found, just as we have fought virtually every other biological pathogen before.  But the most persistent disease humans have ever known – that of bigotry and hatred – is the one we have not yet succeeded in eradicating.  Unlike the random replication of a biological virus which lies beyond our control, the answer to intolerance is in our hands.  It resides in our human compacity for compassion and empathy.  It lies in our ability to inform and educate.  Knowledge is the antidote for ignorance, compassion the cure for xenophobia.  We don’t have a vaccine for prejudice and bigotry just yet.  But we are working on it.





Jonathan Golden, (@jgoldenCRCC), Director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, is working on a book titled Turning Point, based on interviews with victims/survivors and ex-combatants of ethno-religious conflict.

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