Pope Francis’ blueprint for a better world, releases COVID-19

What should the post-COVID-19 world look like? Pope Francis has been thinking about this issue for a long time — long ago, in fact. Almost two years ago, he delivered a remarkable series of post-COVID-19 speeches that laid out the principles needed to anchor the global society and the global economy when the pandemic finally subsides.Shortly thereafter, in October 2020, he published his prophetic encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) Under the cloud of virus-amplified tension, anxiety, and confusion.

History has taught us that epidemics tend to leave their mark and don’t always get better. Perhaps the most relevant historical comparison is with the Spanish flu of 1918-1920, almost exactly 100 years ago. With far less understanding of how the virus works, the pandemic has proved devastating. It has killed 50 million people globally, including 675,000 in the U.S. — roughly 1 in 150 deaths, a far higher death rate than COVID-19.

Massacres on this scale are bound to have serious social and psychological consequences. It does.

The first thing to note is that the Spanish Flu was almost wiped out of history. No one talks about it and everyone wants to forget about it. It is known that President Woodrow Wilson never even mentioned it in public. Part of it was strategic—he was concerned about maintaining morale in wartime. But part of it is the longing for great oblivion, to enjoy the present and to be free from painful memories. The lesson seems to be: if life is in jeopardy, then enjoy it to the fullest. Thus, the first pandemic of the modern era gave way to the Roaring Twenties.

This was a bubble economy period—consumption soared as technology continued to advance, especially electrification; consumer credit and stock prices surged; the modern consumerist society debuted. Income and wealth inequality have reached record levels and will not reappear until today. Political leaders are drawn to what they see as the magical power of free-market capitalism.

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It’s also a time of social upheaval, especially as people embrace a more socially liberal — maybe even debauched — way of life. This was the age of jazz music, the advent of mass entertainment in the form of radio and film, and the smutty culture of speakeasy.This is a period represented by the charm of Dionysus the great gatsby.

as Financial Times Columnist Martin Sandbu wrote: “One of the deadliest epidemics in history, after one of its deadliest armed conflicts, gave way to a decade named for its economic abandonment and social revolution – A decade of consumerism and frothy financial markets, and a decade of new music, art and fashion, personal self-satisfaction and an embrace of freedom.”

All of this is understandable given the collective trauma the country has just experienced.

But the Roaring Twenties had a darker side. The experience of the pandemic may have made people more suspicious of each other. It is perhaps no coincidence that racism, xenophobia and isolationism have all raised their ugly heads during this decade. The Ku Klux Klan – targeting blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants – has millions of members. Racial violence and lynchings are commonplace. One of the worst episodes of racist violence in modern history, the Tulsa genocide occurred in 1921, just after the Spanish flu. Anti-immigrant sentiment is also on the rise. The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed some of the toughest restrictions on new arrivals in history, barring all arrivals from Asia and reducing immigration by 80 percent from pre-World War I levels.

The amazing thing about this period is what it is today—its debt-fueled spending binge, its techno-optimism, its astonishing inequality, its glorification of the market, its narcissistic instant gratification Worship, its shortsightedness and its xenophobia. The question we face is: will we follow a similar path after COVID-19, or will we make healthier choices? That’s the question Pope Francis asked in 2020.

exist Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis condemns what he calls shortsighted, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism; increased political hyperbole, extremism and polarization; decline of the spirit of multilateralism; a worrying world of conflict and fear ; the culture of walls, embodied in the unwelcome of immigrants and refugees at the border; the entrenched power of economic and financial interests, which choose interdependence for their own sake; the abuse of nature; sex world.It’s all a far cry from what Fratelli Tutti Appeal – an “open world” marked by fraternity and global solidarity.

How has the pandemic affected the diagnosis of the current disease? Will it make it better or worse? For Pope Francis, the jury is still out. On the one hand, he noted, “the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily brought a renewed awareness that we are a global community, that we are all in the same boat and that one’s problems are all of them.” He noted that the pandemic has made us realize that we are a global community. At the end of the day, confidence in the market is not enough to protect us. But he warned that we need to heed the lessons of history. “Once this health crisis passes,” he noted, “our worst response will be to sink deeper into a frenzy of consumerism and new forms of self-preservation. God forbid, after all this, we will not think about it anymore.” They’ and ‘those’, but only ‘us’. If only this proved to be not just another historical tragedy where we have learned nothing.”

In post-COVID-19 speech, Pope Francis details what learning the lessons of history might look like. He immediately appealed to some of the core principles of Catholic social doctrine—principles such as the common good, the universal destination of goods, the preference of the poor, solidarity, assistance, and concern for our common home. Using the analogy of a virus, he argues that we need to build antibodies against the twin ills of apathy and individualism, where apathy means finding a different way, and individualism means focusing only on one’s own interests and not the well-being of others. Continuing the analogy, he calls COVID- 19 is a “small but scary virus” but also draws attention to a “much bigger virus” that is considered social injustice, inequality, marginalization and environmental destruction. His bottom line is that we either get out of it better or we get out of it worse. But, he insists, “we have to get out of the woods better to deal with social injustice and environmental damage. Today, we have an opportunity to build something different.”

A century ago, we too had the opportunity to build something different. The world has just emerged from devastating wars and catastrophic epidemics. But our ancestors failed to make informed choices. Can we choose a better path this time? The answer to this question may lie in whether we take the principles of Catholic social teaching seriously.


Image: Office of the US President (Public Domain)

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