‘You can’t ask an epidemic for its passport’: The Tab talks to Rowan Williams

The current Master of Magdalene and former Archbishop of Canterbury talks charity, tolerance and action in a time of struggle

Last Thursday CUS hosted their second online panel of the term entitled ‘Does coronavirus show humanity at its best?’ with a range of well-informed speakers from various disciplines including Magdalene’s very own Dr Rowan Williams who, before becoming Master, served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. After the panel, I had the chance to speak with him and discuss some of the questions I still had lingering after the debate.

As an atheist, I felt it was best to tranquilise the elephant in the room early on and ask the classic question, why would God give us a pandemic? “Well, I don’t think God thought, oh 2020, let’s have a pandemic to shake people up. We live in the kind of world, for whatever reason, in which risk is built into things; cause and effect work themselves out. I suppose I have to believe in the overall picture that that’s the kind of world because it focuses on critical thinking, our capacity to choose, that can be a world we inhabit with integrity and hope.”

The point certainly stands, biblical creator or not, an undefined future is what we would prefer to having our future’s fixed. So we must accept that the undefined future can go in the most ‘unprecedented’ directions. However, stuck in our current circumstances, we do still have a choice in how we react.”‘It is an important recognition that we are not bound into a hamster wheel of conditioned responses so that there is nothing we can do to change it. One of the interesting things that came through in the discussion was the sense that there are some things we can do! The worst thing we can do is be paralysed by the scale of it. It is worth making a small difference; it is not a waste of time. It is a real affirmation of human dignity; human dignity appears not so much in great celebrated heroic acts but in people just turning up.”

In all honesty, I’ve been finding it hard to ‘turn up’ – if you’re my supervisor look away now! Revision is going at a snail’s pace while Law & Order is being watched on repeat, so I very much agree with his sentiments. Dr Williams said:”Credit to those who turn up. Not just visibly, not just NHS workers, but those who collect the rubbish and those who stack the shelves, also putting themselves at risk so that the basic, dependability of our social environment keeps going.”

It has been amazing to see so many people out in force every Thursday clapping for our carers but also to see rainbows in windows around my home town when I go for a walk (socially distancing of course). 

However, it’s also essential to extend our thoughts beyond our own society. “Another point, based on the panel’s global perspective, is that we are in a world of colossal almost unimaginable inequality in healthcare provision and social security”, he said. “In lots of countries, if you are told to wash your hands, there is, in fact, no clean water to use. So, moving forward can we think about adequate healthcare, clean water, sanitation as much more urgently a matter of rights than we have? I’d want to globalise and say, what do we need to have a truly international capacity to response to health crises?”

Many people are finding the new reality of day to day life under lockdown hard especially having to queue around the block to get into a supermarket and then finally once you finally get inside only half the shelves are stocked. Yet this is normal in many other less developed parts of the world. By experiencing this, I hope our understanding and compassion for those elsewhere grows, and Dr Williams shares this hope. “It’s about how we create a more sustainable global society. Crises do not respect boundaries, but we haven’t learnt this. This crisis has underlined the fact that you can’t ask an epidemic for its passport, you can’t keep it out with a wall. It is the same with environmental problems. You have a displacement of people, a destabilising of the economy and these will land on our doorstep. So we need to remember our wellbeing is tied up with the welfare of our fellow human beings.”

At the same time, media reports have been showing people behaving with absolutely no sympathy or understanding. Racist acts towards those with Asian heritage have been on the rise and were already occurring against those within my own college before the end of the Lent term. Having spoken to a close friend who fears racist abuse on their return to the UK, I felt it important to ask Dr Williams how we, as individuals, can promote tolerance at this time. He said: “There is always a slippage towards the blame game, and it’s not all that easy. For all of Trump’s remarks about the Chinese virus, most of us in Western Europe are not sure where to put the blame, and it’s frustrating for politicians not to be able to say ‘well there it is, it’s not us, but we will protect you from it’ because here it is on our streets. There’s no simple story about whose fault it is.

“It is a fact of living in a very mobile, very porous international world. As Peter Frankopan said in the panel, it’s not just about tolerance; it’s also about respect. We do not listen to our neighbour because we tolerate them, but actually because they have something to teach us. The willingness to look around and say there are lessons to be learnt, that’s not a bad place to start. If you think about the ways in which different societies and nations have responded to this health crisis, it would be very foolish to say we have nothing to learn from them. We must stay committed to learning.”

One way we as individuals can promote tolerance, kindness and respect despite other’s actions is giving to charity. Recent media reports have shown how deeply affected large charitable organisations’ revenues will be this year, due to the sudden fall in donations with the onset of lockdown. Yet at the same time, amazing individuals such as Colonel Tom have been raising astonishing amounts for Covid-related causes. How can we reconcile this mixed media reporting? “People love to give to charities that have a human face, and Captain Tom is a wonderful human face to identify with, and that’s marvellous”, Dr Williams said.

“At the same time, there are things that a donation to an individual can’t do, the capacity-building side of charity. I’ve been a patron of the Cambridge city food bank for the last seven years or so, and although you could say that’s very much a reactive or responsive charity, it is also about making sure you have got supplies that are there for big crises in people’s lives. In fairness, people have been quite generous there, volunteering and donating a fair bit.”

Dr Williams is also heavily involved with Christian Aid, a global charity who face the struggle of being ‘faceless’ but incredibly important to global development. He said: “People are not necessarily unkind or selfish, very often in crisis, people are amazingly generous, but for understandable reasons they often want their generosity to be directed to something they can see and identify with. Some very necessary jobs aren’t quite that interesting, but they’ve got to be done.”

This time of year is also incredibly important to the charity specifically. “We are about to go into Christian Aid week on the 10th and the messaging this year is quite difficult because we know we are addressing a public who will probably feel as though they have a lot on their plate and can’t spare very much and that’s where we have to go back to the picture of a world where we are bound up with one another, and we can’t just say ‘Not my business’.”

The pandemic puts into perspective how intrinsically linked we are to one another. For those who want to help and make a difference, but don’t have the practical skills to do so, it is incredibly frustrating. Dr Williams said: “Many of us out there are thinking ‘Please let me make a difference and be a hero’, but we have to accept that possibly the most helpful thing we can do is nothing. You sit with your frustration and think of how tough it is, but the best thing you can do is give the social space and social distance that people need.”

So does coronavirus show humanity at its best? If we remember to care for one another, be that through social distancing, giving to charities or showing our appreciation for key workers, then yes! The sadness and anger many are feeling at this time can be paralysing, but this will not last forever. Speaking to Dr Williams reminded me that to while getting through this we must all do our bit right now (to social distance, to do our work, to turn up for those who need us) at the same time, once this is all over we must move forward with a greater appreciation for what we have and for what others need.

If you wish to make a donation to Cambridge Food Bank feel free to click here, or to Christian Aid here.

Cover photo credit: Steve Punter Flickr, Cmglee Creative Commons , CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM, CUS