Social and Spiritual Impact of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) Pandemic: What lessons need to be learned? by Dr Zahid Parvez

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has had an enormous impact on people and societies - materially, mentally, and spiritually. It is compelling us to re-evaluate how we live, work, and how society operates, by exposing numerous vulnerabilities as well as posing new possibilities for society to consider. Discussion outlining possible post-pandemic scenarios has been initiated. However, much of this is confined to material repercussions, primarily focused on the impact on health and the economy. Numerous government briefings, news reports, and blogs from academics and commentators consider at length the immediate risks to human health and strategies to control the spread of the virus, along with the negative impact displayed on the economy due to the lockdown of societies. Less attention, however, has been given to the social and spiritual impact of the pandemic.

This article departs from the dominant themes currently debated on the impact of Covid-19, and focuses on exploring how people are coping and governments managing the situation from a social and spiritual perspective in light of Qur’anic guidance. This perspective brings forward insights into a range of personal, family, and community issues, which require collective attention and policy intervention. It exposes numerous human vulnerabilities including powerlessness against the forces of nature; the inequalities embedded in contemporary economic models and social systems that hamper society’s ability to cope and manage the impacts of the pandemic effectively; the desperate need for intellectual humility and cooperation between people, communities and society; and highlights the limits of employing solely materialistic values and objectives (both economic and technological) to assure social and environmental protection and sustainability.

From a reflection on the numerous issues that surface from a social and spiritual perspective, this article identifies the following four key lessons that need to be learned for the future. In light of these lessons, it also proposes the employment of holistic and integrated approaches, as opposed to reductionist and secular standpoints, to address such concerns in order to develop more comprehensive solutions, enhance societal resilience and strengthen social capacity in the face of crisis.

  • Need for intellectual humility: to reduce intellectual arrogance, acknowledge human limitations and open minds; to broaden problem-solving frameworks that incorporate considerations of non-material factors in complex societal problems;
  • Delivering justice as a policy goal: to ensure justice and equity across public and foreign policy (to develop just and equitable systems of society for all);
  • Need for enhancing local and global cooperation: promote  cooperation across communities and countries to facilitate shared expertise and to pool resources, thereby, devising effective solutions to common problems and structure resilience and capacity for future crises; and,
  • Building social capital: investing in building social capital essential for social and economic development, and for providing social support when other systems of society fail in a crisis.

 The discussion below elaborates on these lessons and offers recommendations for policy interventions.

 A) Intellectual humility to broaden problem-solving frameworks

The coronavirus appeared to take the world by surprise. Many countries were unprepared and responded rapidly by applying national emergency measures to control the spread of the virus. It became readily apparent that despite our advanced knowledge, technological developments, advanced economies, developed societal systems and infrastructure, military prowess, and so forth, governments proved quite powerless against protecting people from the harms of this virus. Rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped countries were compelled to lockdown in response. Even the most developed nations recognised quickly that their systems and resources were inadequate to cope with the crisis, while some sought external assistance.

A deep-seated idea, nurtured over the last 200 years, that advances in knowledge, technology, and innovations in political and economic models and systems, can help control the laws of nature, dominate the social and natural world, and shape these to our will, has created a feeling of being in control. This crisis, however, suggests that despite advanced knowledge in medical and other sciences, we are not in control, nor able to determine and manage our future or dominate the natural world. Time and again, history reminds us of this reality; whether this is through pandemics such as SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and Covid-19, natural disasters, or stock market crashes and economic crises. Each time our powerlessness is exposed bringing us face to face with death, grief, and mortality.

This pandemic, and other crises faced by humanity, identify a need for humility, particularly, intellectual humility, as this helps to overcome arrogance and mitigate excessive confidence in our ability to control the world and dominate nature. Humility opens the minds to enable questioning of deep-rooted assumptions and frames of thinking. People are enabled to become more receptive to alternative values, perspectives, and solutions that might not fall within the dominant problem-solving frames. Qur’anic guidance suggests how intellectual humility facilitates the acknowledgment of human limitations in rising above narrow personal and national interests. It nurtures an open and positive frame of mind enabling deeper and broader analysis of problems, which lead to creative and comprehensive solutions, and balanced and effective decisions that are likely to have a greater positive and long-term impact on society.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the dominant debate, and the ensuing public guidance has been predominantly confined to the developing health and economic issues, whilst relegating mental, spiritual and social aspects to private and voluntary organisations to address. Governments and experts have provided much guidance and recommendations on material aspects such as measures to be taken for personal cleanliness (handwashing), quarantining, and social distancing, together with the closing of schools, restaurants, and other public places. However, spiritual and social factors have not received sufficient attention in public discussion. The reality is, Covid-19 has not only impacted the physical health of people and economies, but also mental, spiritual and social health, and the environment. These aspects also require public deliberations in a holistic and integrated manner, as spiritual and social factors can also contribute to weakening our immune systems and overall health, creating a negative impact on social and economic systems of society.

Public guidance has lacked advice on how people address the many unknowns and uncertainties that occupy their minds, such as coping with social isolation; dealing with loneliness, and developing a positive psychological response to anxiety, fear, and depression that may result from the pandemic. The absence of public guidance on these matters has occurred because mental and spiritual factors do not neatly fall into secular-materialistic frames of thinking. To fill this gap, numerous religious organisations stepped forward to offer basic guidance on coping with non-material matters such as loneliness, fear, and anxiety. People were assisted in locating the situation in a broader context to help them develop coping strategies and resilience, to connect to their souls and maintain a sense of meaning and purpose during the pandemic.

Qur’anic guidance suggests that both material and spiritual factors need to be considered in a balanced way when addressing personal and collective issues. It provides a number of useful concepts for our spiritual and social health which could be incorporated into policy considerations including having faith (Iman) and trust in God (tawakkal), as these generate confidence and self-esteem; shukr (being grateful and appreciating others), which helps develop contentment, inner peace and satisfaction, and a positive mental attitude; kidmah (offering service/help to those in need) develops a spirit of social service; akhuwah (brotherhood), implies displaying respect, kindness and bringing comfort to others; sadaqah and zakah (giving charity and showing generosity), and akhirah (being future-oriented), which builds hope, motivation and generates effort for a better tomorrow. These are relevant and needed concepts that engender hope, inspiration, positive mental attitudes, an ability to cope with difficulties, which generate a will to live through tough times and to support others in the process, and hold society together.

Sustained intellectual arrogance and retaining a false sense of power and control over the social and the natural world is detrimental to humanity. It results in locking societies into the pursuit of the material, which consequentially encourages personal, corporate and national interests to steer society, as opposed to universal values including justice and human dignity. This will gradually impact negatively on the social and economic health of a society, tie people and countries in a perpetual cycle of conflict, and ultimately drain society of spiritual blessings and happiness.

In contrast, intellectual humility brings numerous benefits. It enables understanding and acceptance of human limitations, recognising the limits of human information processing capacity and that the world is far more complex than can be conceived while many issues remain beyond human grasp. It causes people to become more receptive to consideration of broader issues, including moral values and spiritual factors, as well as alternative perspectives on decision-making. This in turn assists in developing more effective, inclusive, and equitable policies with a long-term positive impact for the benefit of all.

B) Delivering justice as a goal of all policy

Besides the need for humility, this pandemic has increasingly drawn attention to numerous social and economic inequalities, injustices and imbalances apparent both in our societies and throughout the world. These are sustained through inequitable socio-economic structures, policies, and problem-solving frameworks, and manifest through discrimination (based on ethnicity, gender, disability or age), unfair wage structures, and unequal access to employment, health, quality of education, and social support.

Literature suggests that socially and economically disadvantaged people are more likely to contract and suffer from the coronavirus and other diseases as they have no, or limited, access to quality health and social care systems. They tend to live in overcrowded houses and hence find it difficult to self-isolate, and/or may experience insecure employment, unemployment, or forms of financial insecurity, due to a variety of factors including a lack of skills and resources required to work online from home. This impacts negatively on both mental and spiritual health. The pandemic also exposed that many key workers (nurses, social workers, teachers, shop assistants, delivery drivers, cleaners, frontline health and social care staff, emergency services staff, etcetera), who were the most vital and useful to society during the lockdown period were being treated unequally by our society – being exposed to greater health risks while overworked and underpaid. Socially and economically disadvantaged people are also likely to have less access to social support to cope with the broader issues resulting from the pandemic.

Many other inequalities have come to the fore. The unfair pay and reward structures, unfair distribution of wealth, and the political systems dominated by big business interests (leading to inequalities in political representation and participation), which enable the accumulation of wealth in fewer hands, thereby, widening the gap between rich and poor, etc., have contributed to creating and sustaining social divisions in society. The homeless, unemployed, or those who have lost their businesses are going through a difficult time due to a lack of financial and social support.

Social divisions and imbalances have contributed to an increase in child poverty, rising numbers of homeless people, and vulnerable and disadvantaged groups requiring support in society. Many charities and religious organisations including mosques have stepped in to bridge the gap between public services and the needs of communities. A range of services are being provided including assistance in shopping and meal deliveries (for those self-isolating, for the elderly, disabled, single parents who cannot leave children on their own at home), medication collection, pick-up, and drop-off services for the elderly living alone, making friendly phone calls to people to help overcome loneliness, providing mental health support, and established food hubs for the homeless and those in living in poverty.

Inequalities are strongly correlated with social injustice and crime. They create division, tension, disrupt peace, and provide fuel for disaffection in society. To build a better society for all requires a commitment to uphold justice and equity. This commitment can help end many forms of discrimination in the labour market, in education, housing, and social life in general. Qur’anic guidance suggests that justice, equity, and systems to support the weak and vulnerable are essential for a healthy society. The establishment of justice, dealing with all people in a manner that assures equity, fairness, and balance, and safeguarding their rights, property, honour, and dignity are strongly enjoined.

O believers! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, God is a Better Protector to both. So follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, God is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.” (Qur’an 4: 135)

In addition to social and economic inequalities and injustices, attention has been directed towards the imbalances humanity has caused within the natural environment. Reports suggest that there has been an improvement in the quality of the air and in the wider environment due to the lockdown as this has created less pollution. An opportunity has been provided to reflect on the role of humans in causing environmental degradation including global warming and consequential rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, the rapid loss of many species, loss of biodiversity, the erosion of soil, and the destruction of natural habitats, and so forth. Human actions have contributed to these environmental problems. Purposeful reflection should question the established economic models that emphasise efficiency, growth, and profit maximisation, and which nurture compulsive consumerism and extravagant lifestyles creating enormous waste and disturbing the ecological balance.

The Qur’an contends that human arrogance, uncontrolled greed, and selfishness are significant contributory factors to creating social and environmental crises. Islam guides humans towards lifestyles based on conscious awareness of waste and extravagance (Israaf), seeking sustainable consumption, developing care and compassion (rahma) towards each other and the natural world, and making responsible and ethical choices in daily life. It draws attention to social justice (al-‘adalah al-ijtima’iyyah), public interest (maslahah), equilibrium (balance - mizaan), moderation (wasatiyyah) and wisdom (hikmah) in all affairs including policy-making, and economic and development planning. Within this framework, strategies and policies that preserve the natural order can emerge – allowing balance (mizaan) – the equilibrium between the economy, social systems and the environment to emerge; and the balance between satisfying current and future needs to be maintained.

The pandemic has highlighted an urgent need to reflect over the range of inequalities and imbalances that have been exposed and to address these through inclusive political processes based on universal values of human dignity, equity, justice, and balance. Policy underpinned by these values would lead to social justice, reduce inequalities, restore the ecological balance, and make a better world for all.

C) Enhancing local and global cooperation

This pandemic has highlighted a dire need for cooperation between people, communities, and countries, rather than resorting to conflict, domination, and oppression, in order to tackle global problems. A globalised world requires countries to rise above national interests, and join hands to find ways to address common issues such as refugee crises, natural disasters, and other environmental issues, or pandemics. Globalisation has increased the interconnectedness between people within and across borders, and as a result, countries are not able to isolate themselves from the problems/issues of others. This makes the need for understanding, closer cooperation, and pooling of expertise and resources increasingly vital.

As witnessed during this pandemic, countries were compelled to introduce radical measures to address the crises including the need to limit the spread of the virus, introduce testing to identify new infections, make arrangements to take care of the sick and prevent death, as well as to reduce social and economic disruption, and meet basic human needs. Many states with shortfalls required additional supplies of testing and protective equipment, and other items and support from external sources to help manage the crisis. Counties came forward to assist each other in this situation demonstrating that narrow national interests and historical conflicts can give way to cooperation when the global benefit is considered.

According to the Qur’anic guidance, humans are encouraged to cooperate in good works - “…And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression…”(Qur’an 5:2). Health organisations made a positive move in this direction and appealed for international cooperation to find a cure for this virus. Through international cooperation, effective solutions can be found to other social and economic problems arising from the pandemic. Countries experience similar health, economic, environmental, and social and education challenges and concerns. Therefore, cooperation among them can be an effective tool to strengthen, share, and accelerate development within countries and across regions. Cooperation involves creating, adapting, transferring, and sharing knowledge and experiences to address issues through making the most of existing resources and capacities.

The realisation and the motivation for cooperation will emerge from a change of mindset that focuses on human wellbeing, security for all, eradication of poverty, the achievement of justice and peace, and ensuring sustainable development. A mind-set that suggests one’s own country and people should dominate and control the earth’s resources (i.e. nationalism and its different versions) will inevitably lead to perpetual injustices and conflicts with other countries. Instead, a mind-set that suggests universal values and justice should dominate will lead to policies and strategies that seek cooperation, sharing, supporting, and well-being for all. It is such a mind-set that would be able to achieve peace and justice in the world. This is why the central message of the glorious Qur’an is ‘Let there be no god but the One and Only God’, implying that no people should try to dominate and become ‘gods’ on the earth, rather all people should strive to live within the framework of the values and guidance given by the God of all in order to achieve peace and global order as we see in the rest of the universe.

In the future, humanity will continue to face serious diseases and other threats. If we learn to cooperate, share resources, and galvanize our efforts, will we be better placed to effectively address the future crisis. This pandemic provides an opportunity for countries to grasp the importance of cooperation and develop their future foreign policies that aim to enhance it.

D) Investing in building social capital

The lockdown period also brought to our attention the importance of local close-knit relationships such as those found in family, neighbourhood, community, local networks, and in online networks. These were important means of support when other systems and institutions in society were unable to function. They provided a natural infrastructure for social support for those vulnerable or in self-isolation.

It is thus important for a society to invest in building social capital, which is about strengthening relationships between people that bring productive benefits, as an important resource, not only for times of crisis but in addressing numerous ongoing social problems. People bonded together through moral values can become a force for positive change and development in the community and society. Social capital is generated through communication, trust, and respect between people. It brings numerous social advantages and productive benefits to a community including provision of social support, reciprocity, mentoring, sharing resources and connections, or influence. Scholars suggest that social capital is also an important driver of economic productivity and progress in society.

Developing and maintaining social relationships requires an investment of time and resources. As a 24/7 society unfolds, there appears to be less time for self-reflection, for family and community, and for socialising with friends and neighbours. Isolation and individualism is deepening in society despite increased access to technology that facilitates networking. A sense of community is gradually withering away, and trust and social relations waning as social capital decreases. Reports suggest that domestic violence increased during the lockdown period which serves to undermine the family unit. Technological and bureaucratically framed government programmes are ineffective substitutes for this loss of family, community relationships, and support structures, failing to produce long-term benefits.

According to the Qur’an, spiritual and moral values are the glue that binds people together and underpins the development of social capital. This glue is nourished and strengthened by faith and worship that cultivate piety and positive human qualities. The Qur’an emphasises collective worship, the importance of family and community, and enjoins good relations between people and social responsibility for others. To ensure a high level of social capital and cohesion, there is a need to invest more time and resources into building and strengthening the family unit and community through improved education and policies that enable better work-life balance and fiscal policies that support families and community life.

The above four themes draw attention to the necessity of fostering open mindsets, advancing a vision of global justice, broadening problem-solving frames that incorporate spiritual factors, and enhance commitment to justice and social values. If societies become motivated to achieve such attainable goals and take measures to develop policies in their light, they can positively reengineer social and economic systems for the benefit of all humanity.

Post pandemic scenarios

Finally, is society and the world likely to change fundamentally after the pandemic is over or will things return back to the current state? Are the narrow policy frameworks, inequalities, and lack of cooperation between communities and countries likely to continue, or can the world be changed for the better? Will the drive for efficiency and profit maximisation continue or will justice and human dignity and well-being take priority? Commentators have presented a range of views regarding these possibilities. A cursory glance over the last few decades suggests that during periods of crisis or technological innovation, a range of utopian and dystopian visions of the future emerge. However, the new reality that emerges is generally an outcome of a complex process in which different visions compete to shape the future.

Optimistic commentators suggest the world will change for the better. An improved work-life balance will emerge; working from the home will become the new norm; there will be an end to the 9-5 pm working day; cleaner air will result due to significantly reduced pressure to travel, and many other positive changes in business, the economy, education, administration of justice, etcetera will materialise. From this perspective, societies are being encouraged to embrace new technologies and the proposed systemic changes that enable radical positive adjustments in the way societies operate and how people live and work.

In contrast, a vision in which the world might change for the worse has been presented. This perspective argues that people are likely to witness increasing social isolation and loneliness; workers’ rights in online environments would be undermined and there will be an increase in job insecurity, discrimination, and reinforcement of inequalities, etcetera. In view of this, citizens should resist or exercise caution in embracing utopian scenarios, and policies to protect ourselves from the likely harms need to be instituted.

Still, other commentators argue that a post-pandemic society is likely to be a continuation of the present one, with minor transformations because social change is an outcome of different competing forces and is managed through a controlled process of public deliberation and policymaking. The lessons we learn from this pandemic, the forces behind economic and social changes, and the emerging new technologies, all present new opportunities, and possibilities. However, the extent to which societies capture these is also dependent on how embedded political interests and the economic and political structures influence the process and outcomes. As argued earlier, the way crises and issues are framed do impact on how solutions for the future will be shaped and the direction society will take. So social change is increasingly complex and is always less radical than the gurus predict.

New solutions, policies, and direction of a society is influenced by the way society frames issues, crises, and problems. It is clear that this pandemic was framed as a security issue, and proposed and accepted by the majority of society as such. Thus, framing the issue as a national security threat, as terrorism and other issues were proposed and accepted as security issues in the past, pushes alternatives views to the whole debate to the sidelines. The way the pandemic was framed by society will, therefore, influence the direction a society takes in the post-pandemic period.

However the shared vision for the post-pandemic society and world emerges, it is important that people do not passively observe change happening around them. They should make an effort to become informed and engage in public deliberations to ensure issues are framed in a balanced way, and critically evaluate what is being proposed by the dominant interests and opinion formers. A responsible society must endeavour to ensure that justice and human dignity and wellbeing is upheld in the process and that no one is socially or economically disadvantaged.