Fifth Podcast on COVID-19 and Our Lives

On today’s podcast, we hosted imam Asad Zaman, Director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Muslim American Society and imam of the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in St. Paul, Minnesota. Imam Asad the other year told me about the covenants the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities to respect and protect them. As a result, we’re undertaking a study project to learn more about these covenants and their application in our time.

Our discussion today stood its ground on the conclusion that finding possibilities for betterment in adversity is stimulated by our faith conviction about who we are in relationship with others.

Reflections from Prof. Abdullah al-Ahsan

It is Sunday in Minnesota. Our fellow, Professor Abdullah al-Ahsan, who has tutored me in Qur’anic guidance the past 14 years, has just sent me these reflections putting the current global “affliction” in perspective:

“The current situation is definitely very grave and demands serious thinking. Will it change the course of history?

While contemplating, I encountered this article.

Is the current situation going to be like that of the Black Death in the 14th century? Are we encountering a sort of wrath of God, as some scriptures suggest happened in history?

Last October, I visited the biblical city Ephesus: nobody lives in the ancient city center any more, but some historians and archaeologists are now trying to “reconstruct” the city. It was a flourishing city of three hundred thousand people that existed almost from the 11th century BCE to 7th century CE. Several earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries CE destroyed the city completely.

As a student of comparative civilizations, I have been trying to make sense of the Ephesus legacy. I don’t think I have succeeded yet in understanding a pattern of history.

Coronavirus poses a new challenge to me: is it a divine punishment for human civilization today?

Was the Mongol devastation which was followed by Black Death in the 13th century a divine punishment? I have received many messages, mostly from Muslim colleagues, raising questions: the Uighur is asking “how does it feel living under fear?” The Kashmiri is asking “how does it feel living under lock-down?” The Palestinian is asking “how does it feel to live under travel restrictions?” The Syrian is asking “how does it feel being kicked out of your homeland?” The Rohingya has lost his voice completely.

We talk about creating trust. How can we create the trust we need globally when we don’t treat all human beings as human?

I don’t know whether I should raise these questions or not: they are so political!

There is, of course, a silver lining for every crisis. We know in history the 14th century was followed by the humanist movement. Will this coronavirus lead to any such understanding for our future?

We are already witnessing many positive developments: families are together, parents are spending time with children and we are eating healthy, homemade food. A letter from Wuhan that has gone viral says “Air is getting fresher, the haze is gone, the sky is getting bluer, the sun is getting brighter, family lives are getting warmer, harmonized, cordial, hearts have become more and more calm.” CNN has reported that fish have become visible in clearer water in canals in Venice.

Jose Luis, in an earlier message, has called for “common good.” Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has appealed for “working together.” Are world leaders ready for this?

This, of course, is not the end of the world, but my understanding of history and scriptures suggest that this is a warning for humanity. Could we appeal to world leaders, intellectuals and common people for collective thinking? Could we create an initiative for some soul-searching?”

Abdullah al-Ahsan
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Istanbul Sehir University

CRT Podcast Update

First, I want to thank those of you who have watched our podcasts and those who have gotten back to me with helpful thoughts.

Secondly, we are reaching out more broadly for guidance and comments on the global confrontation with the coronavirus.

I note that a virus acts without discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity or age. From its perspective, it is value neutral, a perfect nihilism or, perhaps, an absolute inclusivity.

In this sense, the coronavirus unites all humanity in a common cause – to stop its transmission.

Earlier today, our podcast benefited from Michael Sheldrick, one of the founders of Global Citizen and now its Chief Policy and Government Relations Officer.

Over the last 10 years, Global Citizen has inspired program contributions of $48 billion dollars for poverty alleviation, with positive impacts on 800 million persons. We discussed how social capital in the form of a social movement – young people and artists – can enhance human capital to change financial outcomes for the world. Mobilization of citizens is what it is taking to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, we have asked imam Asad Zaman to join us and on Tuesday, Jean Rognetta from Paris, who is the Editor of Forbes, France.

Reflections From Spain in a Time of Epidemic

I have reached out to our fellows asking for their thoughts and advice on the larger moral and practical aspects of the current unexpected and intrusive circumstances associated with the emergence and spread of the coronavirus.

From Spain, both Domingo Sugranyes Bickel and Professor Jose-Luis Fernandez-Fernandez have just sent me very thoughtful comments which I would like to share with you. Please see their contributions to all of us below.


Observations by Domingo Sugranyes Bickel
Former President, Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice
Rome, Italy

In this country, as in many others, political polarization seemed like a blind alley, a cul-de-sac! An outside enemy – and, fortunately, not a human enemy – is changing the game. That could be positive.

The sheer complexity of practical problems posed by confinement opens the way for a wide variety of subjects in the media. Suddenly, attention is focused on an immense variety of things which normally work without nobody paying attention, in public administration, in business, in all kinds of services. This again is a positive effect: it reconciles us with complexity and compels us to avoid ideological simplification.

We used to complain about young people being like isolated, socially impoverished beings with their smart phone as their only centre of attention. We have grandchildren in Spain, Italy and Belgium, they are all actively involved now in virtual working groups for schoolwork or play. It is just a new channel for rich group initiatives.

I feel alarmed, not only for many lonely elderly people, but also for all those modern slaves – think about human trafficking, prostitution – which means thousands of people probably abandoned by their ‘customers’ and their bosses, due to confinement…

A Decalogue Concerning the Global Consequences of SARS-COV-2
Quick Thoughts from José-Luis Fernández-Fernández
Iberdrola Chair in Economics and Business Ethics, Universidad Pontificia Comillas
Madrid, Spain

This unprecedented situation brings some pointed realities to my mind:

We live in a really small, interconnected world.

Reality has kicked out from under us definitively a kind of fantasy of omnipotence that seems linked to our technological potency at the beginning of the 21st Century.

The axiological order of values appears again crystal clear: primum vivere, deinde philosophari…, i.e., first of all, live; afterwards, the rest follows: things and worries, business, economics, leisure… even philosophizing.

We should act all together in search of the common good, putting special emphasis in helping those who are in less advantaged situations.

We should try and take advantage of this unusual, dramatic situation. This “exceptionality” can serve us indeed as a general rehearsal for possible future scenarios, where we will confront compulsory struggle, for instance, against climate change or another type of global threat.

The destiny of humankind is something holistic: there can be no salvation in isolation.

We need to learn how to collaborate among races, peoples, religions and cultures; going much more beyond the economic order, to entering the real path towards fraternity and humanitarianism.

Reality always surprises us, going even further beyond our wildest fantasies, because tomorrow has not been written. We have to construct it with theoretical effort and goodwill, guided from practical wisdom.

We must recognize our freedom as the anthropological dimension that, together with conscience and will, converts us into moral subjects, able to act either according to the highest ethical standards or without any moral values.

Education in ethics and values should be compulsory, not only in formal training, but also in all sorts of cultural contexts that could be amplified by social networks.

The spiritual dimension of human life must be reinforced and cultivated within every religion, from respect for every humanitarianism, cultural tradition and context through good examples and best practices.

A Different Point of View on COVID-19 for Your Consideration

What to say? Is the glass half full or half empty? Are we, as a global community, getting control, so to speak, of COVID-19 or not? What is the scope of the danger? What precautionary measures are most advisable?

I am reminded of Aristotle’s advice – find the golden mean between extremes and keep to it. His notion of the ethical life was to find balance: not too much, not too little; be wary, but not scared; be prudent, neither reckless nor defeatist.

When the unusual and the disconcerting and worrisome springs forth unexpectedly for no good reason, we are entitled to some degree of anxiety and even fear. But too much fear can quickly and easily push us into losing our balance.

Finding a mean, a middle way, is also a teaching of Buddhism. It is also the advice given in the Confucian text, The Doctrine of the Mean. And wisdom found in Qur’an holds that we should keep the mizan or balance.

In our principles for government, we set a standard of using discourse ethics to decide on what should be done for the common good. Our principle is:

“Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government. Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.”

The goal of discourse ethics, really, is to guide us to a mean, a balance, a prudent course of action under the circumstances.

But discourse ethics demands reasoned consideration of all the facts. Discourse should be open to considering alternatives to conventional wisdom and imposed narratives and normative expectations.

Recently, I was sent a comment on the coronavirus written by Michael Fumento titled “Panic Never Helped Any Pandemic and Won’t Start Now.” He is little known, apparently, but has tracked contagious outbreaks for many years. His take on the growth curve of the virus differs from much that I am reading in the news.

I would be very interested in your thoughts and feedback.

CRT Podcasts on COVID-19 and Our Lives

With Devry Boughner Vorwerk of our board of directors, Michael Wright, one of our advisors and Alan Fine, who teaches at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, we are starting a daily podcast to reflect on the unprecedented global “shutdown” attempting to halt the spread of COVID-19.

We want to provide ideas and a values perspective on responses to the restrictions imposed by governments and recommended by individual common sense as people remove themselves from social interactions and accustomed occupations.

The first podcast can be seen above or directly on YouTube here.

Please let me know your thoughts and send us your ideas to include in our podcasts.

Moral Capitalism and COVID-19

With the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) only a few months old, we already have been taught important lessons about the human condition and our post-modern world from the responses provoked by this mostly inert variety of RNA.

The virus’s RNA genome is less than 30,000 genetic “letters” long (ours is over 3 billion.) The infected cell in our body reads the COVID-19 RNA and begins making proteins that will keep the immune system at bay and help assemble new copies of the virus. Keeping the virus away from our cells is job #1 these days.

First, we have learned that capitalism is necessary for human well-being. Much of the panic we see around the world and the major fall in the nominal prices of financial securities reflect our need for transactions, for wealth creation. We know that governments can’t provide the cash flow and jobs which markets for goods and services do. The loss of cash deflates economics and cannibalizes wealth.

A market failure on this scale can’t be replaced with government expenditures. Governments get their money from taxes and fees, in other words, from capitalist enterprise or from making more paper bills and notes (including lines of credit), one way or another. For sustainable well-being, the private sector is necessary. Markets need to be nourished so they can flourish and so fund the common good.

To reject capitalism out of hand as unneeded or hopelessly unjust is destructively foolish. Socialism can’t replicate all the good which free markets do for us.

Secondly, COVID-19 has revealed just how much we depend on each other. The virus spreads from person to person. COVID-19, therefore, teaches that we need ethics or morality. We need people to be responsible and have a care for others. Social Darwinism, where we can be all on our own in a struggle for survival without taking regard of others, is another destructive foolishness.

The first moral imperative brought to the fore by COVID-19 is taking personal responsibility for not becoming an agent of the contagion. The focus of moral responsibility, in the first place, is on individuals and in the second place, on institutions.

The third lesson concerns risk – what risks should be taken, either to live normally or to stop the virus in its tracks? How much prevention is reasonable in imposing hardships on populations and how much is inadvisable or unnecessary? The perception of risk is very high, exacerbating risk aversion and contributing to fear and refusal to enter the public square, triggering economic contraction.

Risk management, predicting the future and acting according to foresight, avoiding harms and losses is key to ethical conduct. Ethics is the study of how to manage risks to others and to what has value in our lives. But the data I have read is confusing in its implications for what is prudent in seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For example, what is the reasonable worry as to numbers likely to be infected by or succumb to the virus? In the U.S., during this past flu season, some 34 million persons came down with the flu and 34,200 of them died from the infection. The number of us who may host COVID-19 seems at present to be very low in comparison. Even in China, where the contagion has now peaked, the number of symptomatic individuals was just over 80,000.

Other “epidemics” related to our consumption and lifestyles kill many Americans annually, but do not trigger serious public risk prevention measures: there were 38,800 traffic deaths in 2019, 69,027 deaths from opioids in 2018 and 78,069 deaths from alcohol in 2017.

Fourth, we have learned that the threat of contagion is real. Without using the precautionary principle in taking preventive measures, COVID-19 could go “viral.” Our human family now is global; what happens anywhere can have an impact everywhere. Nations are still important; ethnic heritages are manifold with each one having a claim to recognition and respect. Yet, all are intertwined by economics first and then by transportation and especially information flows and cultural diffusions. COVID-19 reveals to us that we really do live in a world community and that there will be no going back to the days of intra-group autonomy, isolation and self-reliance.

Populists, nationalists and chauvinists may regret this multi-culturalization of humanity and the expansion of production, sales, business and finance to every part of every country and they may pine for ancient days of ancestral glory and pre-eminence in homelands, but there is no remedy for their regret and their sense of loss.

Fifth, angst and worry about the trajectory of COVID-19 in infecting us have grown and spread as a contagion all to itself, a psycho-social turbulence which is disrupting lives, events, communities and economies. The ease with which fear arose and spread, its power to precipitate such a determined rush to safety and the reasons prompting the susceptibility of so many to the dynamics of fear deserve study in their own rights.

Is the fear phenomenon we are living with a result of social media, where emotions and exaggerations can quickly grab our attention and excite our imaginations to think the worst? Or has globalization done something to our resilience in convincing us of our marginality, impotence and vulnerability in that we no longer trust leaders and communities?

Is not our modern sensibility of the good life one that calls on governments to protect us against harm and danger? With COVID-19, does the demand for taking responsibility for our own health and fortune – wash your hands for 20 seconds many times a day and clean surfaces before you touch them – run counter to this premise of globalization that well-designed institutions will make all things better?

Does COVID-19 also indirectly call into question the competence of the elites who manage our global institutions such that we are afraid that they will fail us? Are our institutions that well-designed to begin with? Who can we trust to protect us?

We look to institutions, but they turn the work of protection back over to us and demand accountability from each person, family and business. Must we really trust others to do their part willingly and well? Unnerving, yes?

COVID-19 threatens us directly, going around, slipping under and jumping over our institutions, out of sight of our professionals and experts. We doubt our capacity for self-protection and that leads us towards fear. We become acutely aware of our status as victim.

Fear is one of the most corrosive and destructive human states of mind. Its impact on our decisions is rarely benign or constructive.

One function of morals is to gird us for success in our battles against the dark side. Moral courage is not an oxymoron. With courage, we can be more moral and with morality, we can more easily find the courage to act.

President John F. Kennedy ended his inaugural address with these words:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”