PUTTING THE “PAN” INTO PANDEMIC

Photo: Matthew Hendzel SJ

Last Saturday, Toronto Star printed the results of a pandemic poll of Ontarians under the headline “We’ve about had it with all this, survey finds.” This title had me nearly dismiss the entire thing as one more instance of statisticians stating the obvious with percentages attached so as to justify their existence. I was about to lump it together with those breakthrough, well-funded, scientific studies that discover, for example, that walking is good for human health.

Then I went on to skim the article. To my surprise, its content struck me as inconsistent with its headline. The very first stat given was that “50% of respondents feel more depressed than they did before the virus.” Meanwhile, “only 10% feel less depressed, while 40% said there has been no change.” The author’s emphasis was on the only of the minority who actually felt better.

My reading, on the contrary, was the polar opposite. Is it really possible that only half the population feels more down after a year without hugging, without hanging out with family and friends, without congregating in churches, never mind the dismaying increases in rates of domestic abuse, death, unemployment, homelessness and hunger?

“Similarly,” the article went on, “53% said they are feeling more upset than before the pandemic while just 11% feel less upset and 37% said there has been no change.” Just 11% feel less upset! Just? Much of the world as we knew it has fallen down three flights of cement stairs and a mere 11% feel good about it. Isn’t it a miracle that a single person feels less upset?

Far from stating the obvious, which in our current case would logically be something like: “98.5% of those surveyed are troubled by the pandemic,” the article actually reveals something all together unexpected. Namely, that this pandemic, which indeed has touched every person on the planet, has many hands, some exceedingly rough, others astoundingly gentle. 

The distribution of hardships caused by covid-19 has been uneven. That’s the real finding of the survey. Many people are in agony, most are a little inconvenienced, and some are having the time of their lives. According to The Guardian, billionaires in the USA have collectively added 1 trillion dollars to their fortunes in 2020. Meanwhile, the World Bank projects that covid-19 will soon have pushed 150 million more people into extreme poverty. 

The prefix pan stems from the Greek term for universal, all-inclusive. Demos is Greek for people. “Pandemic” literally means all people. The word has enjoyed enormous popularity lately, but it doesn’t really fit. The way it has hammered many and helped some disqualifies it from its universal pretensions.

What does all this have to do with the 5th Sunday of Lent? Precious little, perhaps, were it not also Solidarity Sunday, also known as, the National Collection for Development and Peace.

When the Canadian bishops founded Development and Peace in 1968, they were responding to a revival in human dignity, occasioned by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). They were organizing around the truth that all lives matter, especially those in developing countries, disadvantaged by the unjust distribution of global power, finances, resources and ecological damage.

Canada’s good fortune not only enables her but in fact morally obligates her to help right the imbalance of hardship that makes the world wobble so wonkily. 

I suspect that were a survey conducted in countries without an effective healthcare system, without abundant food, without a major vaccination program, and without ample government spending to retain employment, much more that 53% of respondents would feel more upset than before the pandemic. 

The fact that 47% of Ontarians report to be doing “just fine, thank you” reveals our large capacity to share. Even those more depressed now than last March have probably found some aspects of the pandemic positive: the chance to slow down, fewer hours stuck in traffic, more time in natural areas, friendships re-ignited, albeit at a distance, etc. To this list of silver-linings can be added the countless opportunities to exercise the Christian virtue of generosity. That’s what Solidarity Sunday means. That’s taking the significance of “pandemic” (“all people”) seriously.

Greg Kennedy SJ is a Jesuit priest working as a spiritual director at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario. His prayer often takes the form of poetry. Care of creation is central to his vocation. His recent publications include Reupholstered Psalms: Ancient Songs Sung New and Amazing Friendships Between Animals and Saints.

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