Recently, I had a conversation with some of my public health students about the incredible coincidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was happening while they were completing their degrees in Global Health. Every decision and action (or inaction) by international organizations, national governments, universities, school districts, businesses, researchers, civil society organizations, service providers, hospitals, communities and individuals is a potential opportunity to learn about mitigating an infectious disease. It is also a personal opportunity to learn and reflect on our individual responses to the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic overlaps with the Baha’i month of fasting when Baha’is are encouraged to focus on spiritual development and service as we abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for 19 days. So, I decided to dedicate my meditation and reflection during this Fast on the concepts of illness, disease, health and healing in the Baha’i Writings.
The Writings provide us with advice on how to keep healthy – both physically and spiritually. In fact, the Writings on health and illness are founded upon one of the main principles of the Baha’i Faith, which is the agreement between science and religion.
We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance — for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.1
While the Writings related to biological/physiological health are fascinating to explore, the Revelation of Baha’u’llah also uses the concepts of “disease” and “illness” as ways to analyze social ills in the body politic, or society. For example, war, racism and discrimination are often characterized as “diseases,” and the remedies are discussed through the Divine Physician (Baha’u’llah) and His principles; namely, recognition of the oneness of humanity, elimination of gender discrimination, elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, elimination of religious prejudice, and the practice of altruism (to name a few).
And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is, that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity. As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest.2
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to deeply reflect on our own implicit biases which may impact our reaction to the virus. From what I’m witnessing in my community in the United States, questions arise such as: Are we paying attention to the directives of health experts in our communities? Are we reaching out to our neighbors who may look different than us? Are we isolating ourselves because of our fear of the virus or each other? Are we hoarding food and supplies because we think our own lives matter more than others? Health psychologists analyze the impulse to hoard toilet paper or hand sanitizer as a highly individualistic response to fear based on the false assumption that survival is a competition. As we grapple personally with official orders to wash our hands and practice social distancing, it may be fruitful to consider how our reaction to COVID-19 is a product of our ability (or inability) to see the world as one human family. According to the Baha’i Writings, our ability to survive is not based on competition, but on love, unity and altruism.
The disease which afflicts the body politic is lack of love and absence of altruism. In the hearts of men no real love is found, and the condition is such that, unless their susceptibilities are quickened by some power so that unity, love and accord may develop within them, there can be no healing, no agreement among mankind. Love and unity are the needs of the body politic today. Without these there can be no progress or prosperity attained. … This is an exigency of the times, and the divine remedy has been provided. The spiritual teachings of the religion of God can alone create this love, unity and accord in human hearts.3
COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that is rapidly challenging our daily routines, social connections and behaviors. Just as the virus is extremely contagious in physical bodies, the qualities of our spirit and heart are also “contagious” and have an influence in our world. The practice of kindness is one of those spiritual contagions that may provide us the opportunity to cultivate our understanding of the world as one human family. Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that it is not possible for one member of the human family to live in absolute luxury while another member is subjected to misery and poverty. The indifference to the extremes of wealth and poverty, according to Abdu’l-Baha, is due to lack of economic equality, inequitable laws and lack of kindness and altruism.
We ask God to endow human souls with justice so that they may be fair, and may strive to provide for the comfort of all, that each member of humanity may pass his life in the utmost comfort and welfare. Then this material world will become the very paradise of the Kingdom, this elemental earth will be in a heavenly state and all the servants of God will live in the utmost joy, happiness and gladness. We must all strive and concentrate all our thoughts in order that such happiness may accrue to the world of humanity.4
As we learn from our global efforts to mitigate infectious disease in the 21st century, let us also reflect on how we can promote health in the body politic through our actions – individually and collectively – to ensure the safety of our human family.