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Coronavirus could actually alter our actions for the better

PUBLISHED: 11:37 04 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:37 04 March 2020

A woman wearing a face mask takes a photo on her phone from Westminster Bridge in London. James says the outbreak of coronavirus may result in us travelling less in the future and might be good for the climate and make us face up to our own mortality

A woman wearing a face mask takes a photo on her phone from Westminster Bridge in London. James says the outbreak of coronavirus may result in us travelling less in the future and might be good for the climate and make us face up to our own mortality

James Marston says that the outbreak of coronavirus may actualy force us all to rethink our lives in a positive way

I have a clergy friend whom I much admire, not only is she far more compassionate than me but also because she's unafraid to speak plainly - she says it as it is.

The other evening, over quite a lengthy and tiring discussion on a finer point of theology with other clergy, she dared to state the obvious and say out loud what we were all privately thinking - that we're going round in circles, and that too much theologising can quite easily make us miss the point. I had to smile, the elephant in the room got mentioned.

It seems to me that we are in 21st century western civilisation extremely anxious about life. We are frightened. That our focus - material success - is far too wrapped up with the concept of personal happiness, and, the further along I get into Christian ministry, I can't help thinking the people I encounter are often worried or concerned about issues that boil down to a deeply-rooted fear, usually a fear of change of some kind.

At the moment, we are facing the implications of coronavirus and I can't help think that before too long panic is going to set in, not because we are necessarily likely to die - the ultimate change we struggle even to talk about these days and do our utmost to ignore - but because it seems to me, coronavirus is frightening because it means change.

Imagine for a moment if Ipswich or Norwich or your village was put into lockdown, imagine if we couldn't jump in the car, or go to work, or go shopping, or ferry the kids about, or go to visit out elderly relations, or as we try to delay the outbreak, how we might self-isolate and what that might be like for families.

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Even though it is likely to be a temporary disruption there is much fear about the changes it might bring.

Indeed the headlines the crisis generates, which often focus on the market response to the crisis, betray what is among our primary concerns - money and lifestyle and the threat to the exercising of individual choice.

Mankind has been through much worse, and to paraphrase someone else; most of what we worry about doesn't happen. But in the light of our fears I can't help but think of the young firebrand Greta Thunberg, who, it seems, is a prophetic voice to which we ought to listen and who, like my clergy friend, is unafraid to mention the uncomfortable truth that "People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!". I can't help thinking Greta has a point.

And I wonder if there is a wider point to which we ought to think about - that coronavirus and our concerns are completely disproportionate to that of climate change and yet, for some reason, we are galvanizing ourselves to actually do something about coronavirus. Yet climate change, a far bigger threat to life, health, lifestyle, and the world itself, we continue to try to ignore, or if not ignore, make an effort as long as it doesn't affect how we live our lives too much.

Perversely, in some ways I wonder if the advent of coronavirus might not be such a bad thing, not obviously because people are dying, but because travelling less or travelling only when necessary might be good for the climate and the bringing together in purpose through adversity, the facing up to our own mortality, and the general questioning of our priorities. It might, just might, bring us together in order to face the real crisis of our time.

As Greta also said: "We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself?"

Perhaps it is the system by which we live, the worship of money, the consumption of oil, the luxuries we enjoy through with which the poor suffer, the priorities of economic growth and individual wealth and happiness that need to be radically challenged and changed. Perhaps it is this which is the uncomfortable truth, the elephant in the room, the step into the unknown, that is real change we need to face and the fear we must overcome.

Coronavirus, an existential threat, just might be what we need to point the way.

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