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John Swinton: Hidden side-effect of the coronavirus

28 August 2020


People wearing face masks in Hangzhou City, in east China's Zhejiang Province, in February

People wearing face masks in Hangzhou City, in east China's Zhejiang Province, in February

THE pandemic has brought deep suffering and loss to the most vul­nerable people. Theo­logically, we have had to wrestle with where God is in the midst of suffering, and how best we can deal with the difficult spiritual dimen­sions of lockdown, social distanc­ing, and anxieties about infection and death. At the same time, crucial issues con­­cerning race have emerged around the world.

The connections between the pan­demic and race are complicated, but one connection may be going un­­noticed. I was reading a book by the psychologist Mark Schaller on the behavioural immune system (BIS), as he calls it. This system is a cluster of psycho­logical mechan­isms that allow organisms to detect the pres­ence of harm­­ful disease, parasites, or disease-ridden sub­stances. When you recoil from a foul smell or an unpleasant-looking pustule, it is this system that has clicked into action. Its origins are in the evolu­tionary need to distance ourselves from poten­­tial danger.

This system can, however, be overly sensitive, and can be easily hijacked into thinking that certain groups are unclean and to be avoided. This could indicate that anxiety about the coronavirus may be heightening certain biases. The use of the term “Chinese virus” specifically associates certain people as unclean, and has led to some horrible manifestations of xeno­phobia against East Asian people.

Again, the medical fact that BAME people are dispropor­tion­ately affected by Covid- 19 may well have social consequences if such talk stimulates fear of infec­tion and negative social distancing. The virus does not cause racism or xeno­phobia. It does feed into it. If we develop a cultural imagination that sees one group of people as more diseased than another, we can easily lay the foundations for dan­ger­ous responses and toxic poli­tics. The virus does not cause toxic politics: chronic anxiety and in­­security, however, can provide an ideal context for noxious politics.

Amid current an­­xiety and the unusual cultural stimu­­­lation of the BIS, we are called to be like Jesus. Jesus responded to those living with culturally stigma­tised illnesses such as leprosy not by recoiling from them or stigmatising them, but by moving towards them. He pushes beyond “natural” re­­sponses, cul­tural bar­riers, and political assump­tions towards the person behind the condition.

We are not bound by our bio­logical impulses. When we think about how best to love our neigh­bour during a pandemic, we need to learn how to be with, and to talk about, one another in ways that bring healing and not fear. Presence matters. Words matter. Words cre­ate worlds.

The Revd Dr John Swinton is Profes­sor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the University of Aberdeen.

Angela Tilby is away.

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