It is of deep concern that there are now over 50 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including the devastating loss of 1.2 million precious lives around the world.
As well as being a profound crisis of public health, the pandemic has also caused devastating impact on economies, and is said to have increased the global population of those living in extreme poverty by an estimated 500 million people. It has been 30 years since poverty rose so sharply on such a vast scale. My heart goes out to the numerous families who were doing well but have suddenly been plunged into financial distress due to the coronavirus crisis.
In their recent book ‘Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty’, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo, co-winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, note that “not only do the poor lead riskier lives than the less poor, but a bad break of the same magnitude is likely to hurt them more.” They stress that we should not blame those suffering from poverty for the situation they are in, emphasizing the need to always seek to appreciate the actual conditions in which people live.
Buddhism has, at its root, an emphasis on responding to the real suffering of human beings.
Born into a royal family in ancient India, Shakyamuni enjoyed high political status and material abundance. His youthful years were spent in an affluent environment where large numbers of people directly served the royal family. One day, however, Shakyamuni stepped outside the palace gates where he saw people suffering the damaging effects of illness and old age. He also came across the corpse of a person who had died, by the side of the road.
Deeply shaken by these encounters, the young prince intensely sensed the reality that no one, himself included, could avoid the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. What pained him beyond these sufferings themselves was that so many people imagined themselves immune from such sufferings and, as a result, despised and distanced themselves from the affected.
In any era, such attitudes can take hold — the fatalism, for example, that sees poverty or other dire conditions as an individual’s fixed destiny, or the result of their personal failings, or the denial of responsibility for any harm or pain one has inflicted on others. Shakyamuni’s response was his teaching that although the various sufferings of life may be unavoidable, our efforts to empathize with and support those struggling with difficulties can help weave networks of mutual encouragement, and give rise to an expanding sense of security and hope.
As we see an unprecedented number of people around the world confronted with acute distress and poverty because of the pandemic, it is imperative that we all deepen our compassionate understanding of their suffering, feeling it as our own as we embark together on the challenge to overcome this crisis.
(The writer is honorary president, the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organisation and founder, Soka schools system. He lives in Japan.)