All of us have correctly been occupied with responding to the pandemic of COVID-19 and the ways to mitigate its grave impact. We naturally look to past tragedies for ways to respond well today.
I have been recalling my visit to the Philippines in January 2014 in the aftermath of the November 2013 Typhoon Yolanda. Its destructive force on the island of Leyte was profound and as the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I carried with me the prayers and support of the people of the United States and the contributions for recovery made by the faithful.
There are many differences between that typhoon and COVID-19. For one thing, the typhoon’s destructive force hit the island and passed very quickly. For another, the destruction and turmoil were very evident. Buildings were destroyed, homes were ruined, lives were lost and livelihoods were wiped out in an instant. The long road of recovery had to begin.
Our wise response to the impact of COVID-19 is primarily one of mitigating the effects. While severe sickness has come to some individuals and families for whom we pray, most of the response is to limit the damage to others.
Having noted the differences between these two disasters, I also find significant and substantial similarities. The first for us as a nation and as a church is to remain calm but take prudent steps. These steps involve social distancing and scrupulosity in our hygiene. Hopefully, our habits of hygiene will live on after the crisis has been complete, and this may emerge as one of the gifts within the great tragedies we are enduring.
Secondly, as the Filipino people began their recovery, I found a great emphasis on caring for one another. In every village, people were at work ensuring that no one was isolated and that all were helped properly. Care for our neighbor presents challenges with social distancing, but this does not end our obligation to help others to the best of our ability. Reaching out to a neighbor and taking steps to help those who are in need should be part of our response.
The third lesson learned from the Philippines is the need to reestablish a life-giving routine. Whether we are quarantined or living in self-imposed social distancing that isolates us from our normal routine, there is a need for us not to slip into a kind of stupor in which our only activity is watching or listening to the news or being on social media for 24 hours a day. For sure, we need to keep informed, and our media is doing a great job in helping us do just that. However, we also need to establish a routine that gives life and can be productive.
In the Philippines, the first order of business was the reestablishment of the schools, which provided a routine, not only for the children but also for the families. We are currently unable to do that because of social distancing. Thus, our challenge to be creative is even more daunting. I heard of a mother who sat down with her children to go over what normally would be their school routine in order to mimic it in some small fashion while they were confined to home. Establishing times of prayer, reflection, good reading and even creative journaling are some other ways to establish a life-giving routine.
The fourth lesson reflects our capacity to trust in God’s grace for ourselves and others. I left the best for last! This includes being mindful of our neighbor in our prayer. While the second step was to reach out physically to others within the limits of social distancing, we also should lift up others as we pray. I recall interviewing many of the leaders in the Filipino communities in 2014 and found it uplifting to hear them talk about specific neighbors who had to endure much and who were in their prayers. A good starting place is Psalm 31. It begins “In thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge” and ends in verse 25 with “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!”
With God’s grace and our efforts, we pray that this COVID-19 pandemic will end as soon as possible, and we pray, with the fewest victims possible. We pray also that the lessons we learn about taking prudent and life-giving actions rather than fearful or purely reactive responses will live on in our lives after this pandemic has passed.