The measures taken early 2020 by authorities to combat the Covid-19 pandemic have left the streets of our major cities empty, which evokes an apocalyptic association. Or as Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer puts it in the description of the street where he lives in Genoa: ‘The Via Canneto Il Lungo … is a post-apocalyptic drab decor of closed shutters’ (Dutch NRC newspaper, 21 March 2020, p.7). I was asked how I view the Corona pandemic from the point of view of the Apocalypse. To be honest, I felt some reluctance to answer that question. Why would I do that? It is such an obvious question at a time of the all-controlling Corona hype. Is there any moral reason why humanity is being put to the test by the Corona crisis? And what is the point of this crisis? Actually, it is far too early to ask that question, let alone to try to answer it. That’s why I left the question for a few days. But something kept worrying me. Wasn’t it too easy not to look for answers to the question of the apocalyptic perspective? Even if it’s just stammering. And that’s how I got to work.
I placed the current crisis in the broader context of previous pandemics and went in search of its general characteristics. Hoping to find something that typifies the peculiarity of this pandemic compared to other major questions of our time.
Pope Francis in front of empty St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, 17 March 2020 https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/nieuws/nederland/artikel/5059636/straten-leeg-wereld-bekende-pleinen-plekken-fotos-beelden
Causes of previous pandemics
What are the great disasters in our history? First, we think of wars, world wars. Modern wars can cause millions of deaths. But a pandemic caused by pathogenic microorganisms or viruses can take an even greater toll. Well-known examples date back to the time of the Roman Empire. For example, in the time of Emperor Justinian I there was a huge plague pandemic, which broke out in Constantinople in 542, killing 25% of the city’s population (R.D. Perry, J.D. Fetherston, Yersinia pestis-Etiologic Agent of Plague, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 35-66). In the following centuries, new plague epidemics broke out, but from 770 onwards the plague disappeared, to be absent in Europe and the Mediterranean for almost 600 years. The probable reason for this is that since 630 the strait Bab el Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, had come under Muslim rule, thus closing off the direct maritime link with Asia, the source of many infectious diseases.
In the 14th century, major epidemics reappeared. According to some hypotheses, the Mongolian invasions at the end of the 13th century led to a new era of direct and intensive trade contacts between Europe and Asia. As a result, the plague bacteria, which were present in the wild rodents in Asia, ended up in Europe again (William Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange – How Trade shaped the World, Atlantic Books, London, 2009, p. 136). From the middle of the 14th century onwards, a pandemic called the Black Death decimated the population in Europe. The disease then prevailing was considered a variant of the plague. The disease spread from southern Europe to Norway and Iceland. The plague is transmitted by fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis and by droplets of mist that occur when sick people cough. It is estimated that the Black Death of 1347-1351, i.e. in just four years, killed a third of all Europeans, a total of several tens of millions. Periodically, this epidemic recurred to a weaker extent, with links shown to trade along the Silk Road (G. Morelli, Y. Song a.o.: Yersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity in Nature genetics, 2010, Band 42, no. 12, p.1140-1143). In Amsterdam there was a severe plague epidemic in 1663-1664. The last major outbreak in Western Europe occurred in 1720 in Marseille.
A new wave of deaths arose when the Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire with a few hundred men in the 16th century, partly because infectious diseases from Europe, including smallpox, measles and typhoid fever, decimated the Mexican population in a short period of time (https://g-geschiedenis.eu/2018/06/28/mexicos-massaslachting/).
Print from the 16th century in Florentine Codex depicting the smallpox epidemic in Mexico.https://militaryhistorynow.com/2020/03/14/the-invisible-hand-of-conquest-how-smallpox-defeated-armies-toppled-empires-changed-history/
I remember from much more recent times, I was a high school student, that everyone got sick of the Asian (A) flu. This pandemic broke out in Asia in 1957 and spread around the world, killing about 1 million people. That was only a fraction of the number of deaths caused by the earlier Spanish flu of 1918. Estimates vary from twenty to more than fifty million deaths worldwide. The Spanish flu contributed at the end of the First World War and could cause so many casualties precisely because of the armies involved in the war.
So, the current pandemic with the Corona virus did not fall out of the sky and was even predicted for some time. ‘A new influenza pandemic is very likely, if not inevitable’, was for instance R.A. Melker’s conclusion in 2005 in the Dutch article ‘The physician and the Spanish flu 1918-1920’ (https://www.henw.org/artikelen/de-huisarts-en-de-spaansche-griep-1918-1920#literature-42). The transmission of viruses from wild animals such as bats and birds to humans can lead to new mutations of dangerous viruses that are extra contagious and deadly for humans and will periodically continue to give rise to major epidemics. That is why this risk is seen as inevitable by virologists. The question that remains is whether we are prepared, even if such an epidemic does not rage, to pay for precautionary measures in order to be able to quickly eliminate this risk when the time comes. No country has so far wanted to incur such costs.
The right to move people and goods across the globe must be earned
All these examples suggest that the globalization of trade and warfare is at the root of these pandemics.
Should we therefore stop globalization? I don’t think we should reject globalization in advance. The unification of the earth and of mankind that inhabits it, is undeniably a great goal in line with the Apocalypse. The message of the Apocalypse is addressed to all languages, nations and peoples. They are all part of the future mankind. The unification of mankind is the great goal of the Apocalypse and also the theme of the European anthem: All Men become Brothers!
But good things do not work out well under all circumstances. They are good within certain conditions. I learned that during my first job as a drinking water researcher from a drinking water microbiologist, C.O. Schaeffer. He told me: “A good drinking water supply is a blessing, a bad one a curse”. After all, with a poor drinking water supply, water that is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria is delivered to all connected households, making everyone sick. The globalization of society is a similar system. If something is not right, it reaches all countries, for example through the tourist stream or through goods transports. Globalization is only a blessing under conditions such as:
- Nobody is excluded
- The global network gives benefits to all connected parties
- No negative effects are passed on to the weaker ones
- There is a good quality control system in place before goods or services are allowed into the system.
- All affiliates have equal rights and obligations
- The power of monopoly formation is contained and bound by enforceable rules
- There is a universally recognized body to settle disputes.
If these seven principles of solidarity are realized, globalization will become a blessing. But our world is still full of power inequality. Wouter van Dieren calls this ‘the recklessness of the free market’ (Dutch newspaper Trouw, 23 March 2020, Time for a Future Law, p. 19). Not everyone is connected to globalization and therefore the benefits only accrue to a limited, prosperous part of the population. And negative effects are usually passed on to the least powerful countries. They make the least demands on the environmental and social working conditions, in order to lure large companies within their borders, thus creating a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to rules. And a good quality control system is still being developed. In the Corona crisis, we see that most countries are closing their borders to passenger traffic as an extreme safety measure, thus turning their backs on globalization. This point will, I expect, lead to all travelers being asked for a medical passport for a long time to come, showing that they are not carriers of a contagious disease. At the moment, the absence of fever counts as such a passport. Those who wish to travel freely must prove that they are qualified to do so. For goods, such rules will also apply more often. Monopoly formation leads to concentration of power and sooner or later to abuse of power. That is why it needs to be regulated. And no matter how logical a dispute settlement body may appear, its establishment implies that each country values the collective interest above the national interest. For some powerful countries like the US, which after all lives by the doctrine ‘America first’, this is a bridge too far. The existing World Trade Organization, which was established for economic dispute resolution, is therefore negated rather than strengthened by the US.
The Corona crisis is a setback for the process of globalization that had already been on its way back since 2001 with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. This Corona crisis shows that globalization can only be seen as good if it is subject to global sustainability conditions, as listed above. Globalization is a good thing, but so far based on the wrong motives. That needs to be corrected. The right to move people and goods across the globe must be earned.
Spiritually, the Corona crisis has many important consequences and opportunities. For the first time in many decades, the primacy of the economy, and by extension of sport, has been put out of action for a while, and instead public health and what is needed to safeguard it are paramount. The self-evident nature of our social life has been lost and everyone is being thrown back on their own to reinvent a number of aspects of their lives. A seemingly unstoppable ‘economic growth locomotive’ has come to a standstill almost everywhere, and we are forced to reflect, willingly or unintentionally. A wave of social creativity is erupting as we have to keep social distance from each other as a hygiene measure. This simple principle, however, requires the individual to join in what is seen as a general interest: to slow down and contain the epidemic in order for the government to be able to provide the desired health care.
Will society seize the opportunity offered by this crisis to value the spiritual side of life more, or will we move on to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible? Intriguing questions come to the fore, such as:
- Are you afraid of the finiteness of your own life and of those you love?
- Should every sick person be treated with intensive care or can choices be made?
- Are you prepared to adapt your behavior as a young person to prevent care problems for the elderly and vulnerable?
- Where is the limit of acceptable economic sacrifice to save the lives of the elderly who often already suffer from serious ailments?
- May the government limit freedoms of citizens to the degree we see nowadays?
- Is there a guilty party who will have to pay, or do we see it as a mirror that is held up to us from which we can learn?
The results of voluntary restraint in the Netherlands in mid-March 2020 were not so encouraging where younger parts of the population are concerned. The government had to introduce greater coercion and extra sanctions, but these worked out later. It is not surprising that young people, who seem to be at little risk, and older people, who are the first to fall over, are different. We can see the struggle between higher and lower self, unrolling through the crisis. Even more difficult situations arise where the ‘I’ is weakly developed, because such people are difficult to approach.
Do epidemics have a purpose?
After broadly exploring all these characteristics of pandemics, we can return to the original question of whether pandemics such as the current Corona pandemic have an apocalyptic meaning.
First of all, a pandemic disrupts daily life in many countries. The suggestion is made by some that the purpose of this is to ensure that we do not fall asleep spiritually, for example when we are totally taken up by material life and everything seems to be going easy. What we then experience as a wrathful ‘act of God’ is perhaps an expression of his love with which he calls us to keep going the spiritual way up. Also, the pandemics that are caused by a virus jumping from an animal to man are a consequence of the wretched conditions under which man allows animals to live. If our respect for the animal increases, and is converted into better living conditions for animals, the chance of these kinds of pandemics will be greatly reduced. Rudolf Steiner (Erfahrungen des Ubersinnlichen, Die Wege der Seele zu Christus, GA 143, 17 April 19 1912) has observed that ‘every pain and death that man inflicts on an animal will resurrect in the next life. It will resurrect in man as a parasitic creature. That will bring the settlement. People who now suffer from bacillary infections owe this to previous incarnations in which they have caused suffering and death to animals’. More in general he has stated: ‘Disposition to infectious diseases is based on a selfish possessiveness formed in the previous life to collect riches that is a property of the ether body, that in a subsequent life results in a predisposition to infection’ (Das Christliche Mysterium, GA 97, 14 March 1906). These are all observations we like to doubt, but Steiner had the courage to describe what he was observing spiritually. He went even further by stating that ‘a weak self-esteem in a previous life can lead to an aspiration in this life of exposing oneself to an epidemic in order to strengthen the self. Thus, the victory of an epidemic brings man a settlement that further perfects him’ (Die Offenbarungen des Karma, GA 120, 22 May 1910).
In whatever way we like to interpret the pandemic, the present Corona crisis does not reveal a completely new moral dilemma. This kind of dilemma is centuries old. Each country tackles it individually and also has the impression that it can be solved with national policies. In theory, this could be done when borders are closed and patients can be isolated and treated. Here we are touching on a new aspect, because national governments are unable to tackle the crisis quickly at national level due to globalization, because resources and medicines are often produced in other countries. This vulnerability is new and the great media attention for the resulting powerlessness of governments is also new. As a result, there is a call for more international cooperation and at the same time of more autonomic states. But overall, the pandemic crisis is less new than the climate problem, where the whole planet is exposed to every emission. Where a global spread of emitted greenhouse gasses is inevitable, the release of contagious viruses can in principle be contained.
Outer and inner world
Because of the major economic consequences of the shutdown of social traffic, the Corona crisis also has consequences that affect spiritual life even more directly.
Now that the outside world and human social behavior pose a serious danger to our health and that of others, we are forced to turn inward, both literally and figuratively. The question then arises as to whether our inner world is healthy and harmonious. Who am I? Can I create a new diurnal rhythm from within myself? Do I have an inner grip on tasks that I want to shape myself? The Corona crisis offers us the opportunity to improve the quality of our inner world. Such a collective opportunity doesn’t happen very often. And if we experience silence while staying at home, the euphoric and hopeful images of the Apocalypse can come more clearly to our consciousness. Are we strong enough to balance our inner world, or are we submerged in boredom and passive consumption of distractions?
Places where the Apocalypse mentions phenomena reminiscent of the current Corona pandemic are Revelation 6: 7-8, text fragment 16, describing the opening of the fourth seal (…and they were given power over the fourth part of the earth to kill with the sword and hunger, and with pest, and the wild animals of the earth) and in Revelation 16:1-2, text fragment 41, where the first scale of wrath is poured out (..and there came ulcers, painful and wicked, about the people). As described in relation to text fragment 41, the health maintained from within becomes disturbed when the inner spiritual connection with God’s love is disturbed.
Christ on the White Horse, Revelation 19: 11-21, York Minster, glass window
In the time of reflection that is now being collectively created, we can reflect on this inner bond of love and become aware of the radiant image of the Son of Man, man as intended by God when he created man, and man as he returns to heavenly Jerusalem at the end of the rounds of creation. With this apocalyptic image in mind, we can rediscover ourselves. In this way we also create inner conditions that bring more balance to our constitution and increase our resistance to the virus. Steiner, again, points out in this context a very practical point: the importance of healthy sleep (Who erwirbt man sich Verstandniss fur die geistige Welt?, GA 154, May 5, 1914). ‘Falling asleep with a materialistic disposition cherishes bacilli, as does being afraid of the disease. By lovingly nursing the patients, one reduces the growth force of the bacilli. Bacilli are creations of Ahriman that come about through a materialistic disposition or purely selfish states of anxiety’. In the pandemics we also see the role of the apocalyptic beast and the false prophet outlined.
At the same time, we have to be careful not to come to simple conclusions. Every human being goes a unique path of development. The most interesting question is why a large part of the population does not or hardly get sick from exposure to the Corona virus. The answer to this question requires a separate study, beyond the current scientific paradigm. For example, Steiner (Geschichtliche Symptomatologie, GA 185, October 20, 1918) points out that ‘behind the occurrence of certain flu epidemics the rhythmic course of cosmic events, the cosmic rhythm, must be sought, the cosmic constellation of the moment. What lives on earth as sicknesses is sent down to us from heaven.’ Enough to challenge us to further explore these issues.