Coronavirus: The Effect on Community & Spirituality Photo captures a mosque from a distance in the twilight, seen from the window of a Bazar. Overall the theme and colors are dark, indicating distance.

Coronavirus: The Effect on Community & Spirituality

Coronavirus drastically changed the spiritual and cultural practices of communities. For the first time, we are left separated from the integral elements that encompass our communal spirituality — family, friends and loved ones. It presents an additional difficulty as we navigate the new ‘normal’.

As the current coronavirus lockdown measures impact our daily lifestyles, it is important to consider the ways in which the pandemic is affecting communities. Particularly grieved are those for whom community is an important aspect of their life and identity. This is most noticeable during religious holy days, whether it be Passover, Easter or Ramadan. Most of us at MENA Student Association have grown up in community-centered environments that go hand in hand with our spirituality and celebrations, but with this year’s coronavirus lockdown, the effects on tradition are drastic.

Today the concept of community is global as well as intersectional. Community and spirituality are important for students; they provide new ways to experience and engage with special occasions. Our community at the Middle East and North Africa Student Association in the Hague includes members from all three of the Abrahamic religions prominent in the Middle East and North Africa region. The cultures in which we grew up—either in the physical middle east or part of the diaspora—often promote selflessness, community, family, and communal contribution in doing what is best for society. These are our core values as an intersectional and inclusive association. For us, common goals are important, as well as promoting generosity. These values are especially highlighted during our religious holy days. The current lockdown makes it difficult for us to observe our holy days as usual: the integral community feeling is missing. Though some of us were fortunate enough to be repatriated home, most of us were left separated—by distance, borders, even time zones—from family, friends and loved ones.

The coronavirus pandemic has cast its shadow over our communal spiritual traditions. For the followers of Judaism, the eight-day festival of Passover (April 8-16th) coincided with a quarantine in isolation. This meant that those wishing to practice the Seder ritual—meant to be a celebration of freedom—were kept from its usual family-centered traditions. Coptic Orthodox Easter (April 19th) and Palm Sunday also looked vastly different this year, with churches unable to conduct their usual Palm Sunday services. In an effort to continue offering spirituality to their congregation, the clergy of the Egyptian Coptic Church in the Hague conducted their first online service. In Muslim communities, the holy month of Ramadan (started April 23rd) was hit hard, especially considering that fasting is interconnected with family, togetherness and solidarity. Practicing students who are used to breaking fasts with their families, friends and loved ones are unable to do so this year. Ramadan is usually reserved as a time for collective healing, and for the first time ever this healing is being interrupted.

At the MENA Student Association, we have taken steps to ensure that members of our community do not face this alone. We have been carrying out online events and organizing web-based iftars, in the hopes of conserving some of our community-based culture and spirituality. However, as the world experiences unprecedented tragedy, it is clear that we need more widespread compassion, especially towards students, staff and faculty members from community-based cultures that are dealing with one of the most drastic events of a generation.

Besides affecting spirituality, the crisis has also revealed—and even worsened—many structural inequalities, making it tremendously difficult for us to focus on our personal issues when many in our community are facing emotional, familial and financial struggles. It is now vital to take care of each other, and to reduce the mental health consequences of an academic sphere that prioritizes “operating as normal” by assigning the same amount of work as before the pandemic, which ignores many of the harsh realities of this global crisis. As students, the focus is placed on our individual performance and success, yet this situation shows that community is crucial for our well-being, as well as our ability to study and perform. Participation in an “operating as normal” environment is a privilege that not all students, faculty and staff members can fully afford. It is now more crucial than ever to show our collective empathy as we try to navigate the new ‘normal’.