March 14, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Washing our hands of it, but aren’t we all to blame?

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus – COVID-19 – reports of xenophobic attacks against Chinese and other Asian minorities in the West increased. As professor Miri Song observed:

Whenever there’s some kind of major incident with global or regional implications, and as soon as you can identify it in relation to some racial ‘other,’ particularly in predominantly white, multi-ethnic societies like England or the U.S., I think it’s very easy for people to use a very small excuse to start scapegoating on the basis of their appearance…” [1]

Ample evidence exists to confirm professor Song’s contention; however, if we were to reflect historically on whether similar treatment was ever meted out to the same predominant ethnicities – within a similar context of contagion – an altogether different picture emerges:

“…in the centuries after Columbus landed in the New World on 12 October 1492, more native North Americans died each year from infectious diseases brought by European settlers than were born. They fell victim to epidemic waves of smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, chicken pox, yellow fever, and whooping cough. Just how many died may never be known. For North America alone, estimates of native populations in Columbus’s day range from 2 to 18 million. By the end of the 19th century the population had shrunk to about 530,000.[2]

While Wuhan, China, was the epicentre of the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Europe has rapidly replaced it.[3] Panic buying of toiletries appears to have distracted many from attributing blame or violence towards predominantly white travellers responsible for spreading the virus upon their return:

Several European countries have announced their first coronavirus cases, all apparently linked to the growing outbreak in Italy. Austria, Croatia, Greece and Switzerland said the cases involved people who had been to Italy.” [4]

The Great Unwashed (Literally), Part 2

In contrast to the often accusative intimations used to castigate minorities, in the case of indigenous Europeans, media outlets have been empathetic in their reporting the plight of stranded tourists keen to return home.[5] Without dwelling on the contradictory attitudes toward inhabitants from the two epicentres, attention will shift to the increasing global panic surrounding the requirement to remain sanitised. From medical professionals to politicians, the general advice has been to maintain a good sense of hygiene.  However, the inevitable question has to be, what were the standards of hygiene prior to this pandemic? Existing research regarding general hygiene in western cities reveals we should have been concerned long before the current pandemic. However, little was done at statutory or societal levels to mount public campaigns on the type of scale being witnessed today:

“Several research studies confirm what you may have guessed all along: your money is filthy. In some instances, touching money is just as dirty as touching a public toilet. University of Gondar researcher Agersew Alemu said part of the reason money harbors and transmits so many pathogens is because most of us don’t take the time to practice good hygiene before, during, and after coming in contact with money…

An individual living in unhygienic conditions having unhygienic habits will contaminate the notes with bacteria and these notes will act as a vehicle delivering bacteria to contaminate the hands of the next user. Improper hand washing after using the toilet, counting paper notes using saliva, coughing and sneezing on hands then exchanging money, and placement or storage of paper notes on dirty surfaces leads to the contamination and these notes will act as a vehicle delivering bacteria to contaminate the hands of the next user… Research has found most money contains fecal matter and other potentially pathogenic organisms.” [6]

Perhaps among the reasons for the failure of reports like these gaining public attention and traction are the fact that bacterial diseases are less impactful and more curable than viral equivalents and, more disconcertingly, many are unconcerned about the origins of such currency – dirty or otherwise – so long as its money.

Trading profits for prophets

The fear of another global recession is palpable, seemingly more so than anxieties about dying; “Coronavirus’s economic danger is exponentially greater than its health risks to the public.” [7] In fact, a few have actually embraced the pandemic, asserting its ability to ‘cull’ a particular section of society:

A Telegraph journalist has suggested coronavirus could ‘prove mildly beneficial’ to the UK economy by killing off elderly Britonshe said: ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.’” [8]

Unfortunately, the elderly, who comprise among the most vulnerable in society, are no longer afforded the type of protection and regard once assured post retirement. Even their pension plans have recently been the subject of statutory reviews and is reflective of the moral bankruptcy plaguing governments and corporations in pursuit of profit. The type of civil unrest witnessed in France is an unsurprising reaction to unscrupulous attempts to deny employees their lifelong contributions:

“…unions representing millions of staff in both the public and private sectors are unhappy about a plan to overhaul the country’s pension system, which they say will force people to work longer or face reduced payouts when they retire.” [9] 

As headlines continue to highlight financial losses and business closures, the emerging global atmosphere appears to be one of self-survival; social distancing is indeed a necessary precaution among the many being implemented in order to tackle this pandemic. However, as already intimated when referring to the elderly, there is an increasing absence of the type of social cohesion where communal values underscore our collective response in tackling a crisis, the like of which many have never experienced before, (except the elderly, from whom many lessons could be garnered in relation to their stoicism under similar circumstances). In fact, it is amid climates like these that faith matters and allows us to refocus on intrinsic, shared beliefs. Capitalist messages of gluttony and greed are countered with principles from respective religions, like the predominant Christian faith that enjoins it adherents to; “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have…”[10] or the prophetic and encompassing advice from Muhammad that; Two hungry wolves let loose among sheep are not more harmful than a person craving after wealth and status is to his religion.” [11]These traits allude to a sickness far more exacting than the current coronavirus; a disease of the heart, however, as this is within an esoteric, and not medical realm, it warrants scant regard in today’s largely secular and irreligious societies.

Conclusion

In an era where many are spread across a socio-cultural spectrum, with one perspective advocating overzealousness (and in some cases, extremism) in faith and the other championing excessive liberalism, reference to anything remotely religious is either ignored or frowned upon. However, there is no issue accepting citations from renowned personalities, like George Orwell, Albert Einstein and unknown characters whose words inspire multitudes. In redressing this somewhat irreligious imbalance, transcendent references are applicable, if not necessary, within the prevailing climate of uncertainty. When addressing some of his companions, Prophet Muhammad mentioned; “…you may be afflicted by five things; God forbid that you should live to see them…” Among those five he warned; “…If fornication becomes widespread, you should realize that this has never happened without new diseases befalling the people which their forbears never suffered.” [12] Memories of our response to  new illnesses that emerged over the past 30 years, like AIDs and Ebola, will serve as reminders of the alarm and initial panic at the unavailability of immunisations for these diseases at the time. Current medical estimates suggest over one year to develop a vaccine for the current virus.[13]

It could be argued, we must all, to varying extents, take responsibility for our immediate circumstances and that in doing so, begin to effect the required changes to reverse what has long been a moral, psychological and environmental decline that have contributed to the conditions we find ourselves in today.  Consequently, if none of the above is of any immediate concern, the following prophetic advice will perhaps resonate within the current climate:

“Take benefit of five before five; your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death.” [14]

 

 

 

[1] Haynes, S: ‘As Coronavirus spreads, So Does Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism,’ Time Magazine, 6th March 2020: https://time.com/5797836/coronavirus-racism-stereotypes-attacks/

[2] Meltzer, David J: ‘How Columbus sickened the New World: Why were native Americans so vulnerable to the diseases European settlers brought with them?’ NewScientist, 10th October 1992: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13618424-700-how-columbus-sickened-the-new-world-why-were-native-americans-so-vulnerable-to-the-diseases-european-settlers-brought-with-them/

[3] BBC News: Coronavirus: Europe now epicentre of the pandemic says WHO’, 13th March 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51876784

[4] BBC News: ‘Coronavirus: Outbreak spreads in Europe from Italy,’ 26th February 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51638095

[5] Coleman, L & Prynn, J: ‘Italy’s coronavirus lockdown sees Brits trapped abroad as 20,000 tourists seek their way home,’ Evening Standard, 11th March 2020: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/italy-coronavirus-lockdown-brits-stranded-abroad-a4384611.html

[6] Ngo, S: ‘3 Gross Facts About Money That Will Make You Sick’, Showbiz CheatSheet, 6th June 2016: https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/3-gross-facts-about-money.html/

[7] Hasan, O: ‘Coronavirus will bankrupt more people than it kills – and that’s the real global emergency’, The Independent, 12th March 2020: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-deaths-trump-stock-market-pandemic-economy-bankrupt-italy-a9394891.html

[8] Roberts, J: ‘Telegraph journalist says coronavirus ‘cull’ of elderly could benefit economy’, 11th March 2020: https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/11/telegraph-journalist-says-coronavirus-cull-elderly-benefit-economy-12383907/

[9] BBC News: ‘Macron pension reform: Why are French workers on strike’, 5th December 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50670613

[10] BibleInfo: ‘Hebrews, 13:5,’ https://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/what-are-seven-deadly-sins

[11] Hadeeth collection At-Tirmidhi, graded hasan-saheeh (authentic)

[12] Ibn Kathir: The Signs Before the Day of Judgement’, Dar Al Taqwa Publications, 1992, pp.16/17 (Narrated by Ibn Majah in Kitab al-Fitan)

[13] LBC News: ‘Coronavirus vaccine: How close are we to a cure and how long does it take?’ 12th March 2020: https://www.lbc.co.uk/hot-topics/coronavirus/vaccine-how-close-are-we-cure-treatment/

[14] Abdul Hameed, A H: ‘Forty Hadeeth on: The Call to Islam and the Caller’, Al-Hidaayah Publications, 1994, p.56, (Reported by al-Haakim – 4/306 & al-Bayhaqi in Shu’abul Eeman  – 2/3/240 with authentic chain of narration)

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