Tavivat Puntarigvivat is a visiting professor of Thai studies at Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University in Bangkok. Puntarigvivat has researched and published extensively on issues of religion and social ethics, especially from the cross-cultural and socio-political perspectives. His research on Thai Buddhist Social Theory was published by the World Buddhist University in 2013 and Social Theory on Religion by Mahidol University in 2019.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that started in Wuhan, China in late 2019 has caused suffering to people all over the world. Human suffering is the main concern and the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. There are at least three kinds of suffering from a Buddhist perspective: physical, socio-political, and psychological. The success or failure of each country to cope with this pandemic depends on these following three factors: a sound health care system, quick and responsible decisions from governments, and a love that encapsulates a sense of sharing and cooperation among its people. Buddhist meditation has played an important role, in times of crisis, in healing psychological suffering.
Taiwan is a good example of a Buddhist response to the problem. Buddhism in Taiwan is probably the strongest in Asia. Taiwan has the best Buddhist medical schools and hospitals situated around its islands. The democratic government of Taiwan was quick to lockdown the territory while carefully managing the local economy. The Mahayana Buddhist ideal of Bodhisattva (one who sacrifices oneself for the welfare of others) in Taiwan has inspired Buddhist social networks to bring social welfare among people.
As a Buddhist country, Thailand has also developed a good health care system, together with the Buddhist culture of metta-karuna (loving-kindness and sharing) among its people, but unfortunately the Thai dictatorial government has locked down the country without any clear plan for managing unemployment, leaving a lot of people to face the difficulties of a looming economic crisis.
South Korea is a half-Buddhist, half-Christian country. It has done a good job in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, though there were setbacks at the beginning. It has a good health care system, efficient government policy and management, and cooperation among people. The victory of the Democratic Party (DPK) in a recent election reflected the success of the government in solving the problems caused by COVID-19. In South Korea, the spirit of love, sharing, and cooperation among people rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism has contributed to the success in combating the virus. People in different countries can learn from the experiences of South Korea and Taiwan, together with advice from the World Health Organization (WHO): testing for the virus, physical distancing, and wearing sanitary masks in public places.
The coronavirus pandemic in a way is a crisis of globalization. People from all over the world have suddenly stopped traveling, aviation and other forms of mass transportation have lost their business. Most countries have locked down most of their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Business and entertainment are shut down. Education and schooling have been put on hold and students are now learning online. Most foreigners have returned home. Urban workers have returned to their farmland or countryside. People from all over the world are advised to stay at home. The busiest sections of most countries, however, are hospitals and the health care system. The world’s population is facing public health problems, and a substantial number of people are dying.
A history of over 400 years of capitalism and transnational capitalism, with its accelerating pace in the last 50 years, has contributed to the world’s crises: economic, political, military, ideological, social, cultural, public health, environmental, and ecological problems. Most countries overuse their natural resources to “overdevelop” their nations, especially major powers of the world, creating a huge income gap between the rich and the poor, leaving behind the non-degradable waste to the globe and excess carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Through food agribusiness, human beings create a paradise for themselves, but a hell for farm animals and other living species. Over-consumption leads to the serious issue of global warming, which in turn challenges the very survival of human beings themselves. The world is in a crisis of imbalance.
The outbreak of COVID-19, whatever its actual cause is, is a response from planet earth to the damage caused by human beings. The planet, by its natural mechanism, produces the coronavirus as an immune system to defend itself from the invasion and overpopulation of the strange “virus” called human beings. During this outbreak with human shelter-in-place, the sky becomes clearer, the ocean cleaner, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the lowest in decades, wild animals in the jungles and the oceans are less threatened and better able to survive: the planet is healing itself. Isn’t this what the most radical environmentalists have called for? Lao Tzu, the great teacher of Taoism, called it, some 2,600 years ago “reversing the movement of Tao (nature).” When we go to one extreme, nature will eventually swing it back to the other extreme. Human beings should learn and find the “Middle Way” to live peacefully with all other sentient beings and the environment on this planet.
Because mainstream economics dominates the world, most countries have increasingly competed for “development” by using up the limited natural resources to satisfy the unlimited human want (or greed). This imbalanced development by emphasizing the “supply side” has created tension among human beings witnessed in the two world wars and tension between human beings and nature witnessed in the ecological crisis. Buddhist economics would emphasize the “demand” side by limiting human want so that natural resources will be sufficient for everyone. The concept of “minimizing cost and maximizing profit” should be changed to “minimizing consumption and maximizing human well-being.” The goal of development should be shifted from Gross Domestic Products (GDP) to Gross National Happiness (GNH). To learn from the novel coronavirus crisis, human beings should find a “Right Livelihood” on the middle path for maintaining sustainable development and the balance of human beings and nature, thus creating a mutual coexistence for both.