The Coronavirus Crisis as a Missed Opportunity: A Lesson from an Old Testament Story

April 14, 2020

In the last several weeks, many people are living with their books rather than other human beings. There is little else to do in the self-isolation imposed throughout Europe but to read. And the books one reads determine, to some extent, one’s perception of the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, the unfolding drama of the pandemic lends new meaning to what one reads. This is especially pronounced, I find, when one rereads a book.

During the past weekend, amid the tragic news of 700, 800, 900 deaths per day in Italy and Spain, I was going through Zygmund Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust. A passage that I had disregarded the first time I read the book caught my attention. Bauman tells us of the Old Testament story of the saintly sage who was stopped by a man begging for food. While the sage was unpacking his sacks to get the food out, the beggar, exhausted from hunger, dropped down and died. The sage prayed: “Punish me, O Lord, as I failed to save the life of my fellow man.” To a reasonable person, the story can sound, frankly speaking, a bit silly. Why would you feel guilty of something that is clearly not your fault, especially when you had sincerely intended to help? Surely the beggar died not as a result of waiting a few minutes, but as a result of having had no food long before the sage appeared on the scene. Surely the sage did everything humanly possible, etc.

But as the pandemic unfolded, and news of deaths poured in, I pondered over the moral of Bauman’s Biblical parable. When faced with another person’s suffering, you are given an opportunity — in religious terms, a “blessing,” an instance of God’s “grace” — to show compassion, generosity, solidarity. And there are situations in life when that opportunity can be easily missed. Levinas captured something of this idea when he spoke of morality as a “moment of generosity.” There is something in the nature of a pandemic that forces upon us the sense of the fleeting instant, the moment that appears and disappears forever. Of course, the current crisis will have long-term consequences — economic, political, etc. But the crisis will also stay in people’s minds for the reactions it produced within the several weeks around what is called the “peak.” Doctors tell us that, with every outbreak, there is a curve, the high point of which marks the explosion of infections. This period, which may appear in hindsight as a terrifying, but brief moment, can be, in many ways, the ultimate test of one’s humanity or, in this case, of the much-vaulted European value of solidarity.

It is not very likely that Italians, some of whom lost both parents in a matter of days, will forget the dearth of assistance their country received during these very days, no matter what happens later on. Neither the Italians, nor the Spanish will forget the images of nurses crying in desperation when forced to choose whom to treat and whom to let die. The family of the Italian doctor I know in Turin will not forget that he lost his voice due to stress. All these people feel — and say that they feel — that they were abandoned by Europe in their hour of need. The Spanish PM’s desperate words to Angela Merkel may continue to haunt us for years to come: “Do you not understand…?”

The coronavirus pandemic has been rightly described as a tragedy, a disaster that will change our world. But it can also be seen as a missed opportunity for Europe to show a “moment of generosity” — a test that Europe, at least in the initial stages of the crisis, failed. After all, the disaster struck the wealthiest societies in the history of the world. It is difficult to believe that so little can be done.

I’m reminded of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Once broken, the bowl can probably be repaired, but the cracks will always show and it will never be perfect again. We may very well be witnessing such a moment of breaking.


Clemena Antonova is an art historian with interests in Russian religious philosophy and, more generally, the role of religion in modernity. Her D.Phil. thesis at Oxford University was published as a book titled Space, Time, and Presence in the Icon: Seeing the World with the Eyes of God (Ashgate, UK, 2010). Her second book is Visual Thought in Russian Religious Philosophy (Routledge, 2019). Clemena has held research fellowships at several institutions, most recently at IMERA, the University of Aix-Marseille and the Morphomata Centre, the University of Cologne. At present, she is the Research Director of the Eurasia in Global Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.