The on-going crisis that is caused by COVID-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2) – has exposed some of the weaknesses of the world’s most powerful countries – and the system that underpins the global order of today.
The most obvious and critical matter is the capitalist economic order – but it has also exposed weaknesses in governance, social structures, food standards and individual values – all of which are based on the secular creed.
Capitalism is not a system fit for purpose. If it was, then we wouldn’t be worrying about a potential global recession because of this virus outbreak – a recession that is said to be overdue. People have been anticipating the cyclical ‘bust’, without having seen any significant ‘boom’ since the last recession. But the weakness of capitalism will most likely be deflected by the attention on the virus.
What positive action have we seen?
Some might argue that in China, where the outbreak first took hold, it understandably took a few weeks – between the time the first cases were diagnosed, to realising that there was human-to-human transmission and a local epidemic – to enforce control measures like quarantine of the city and province that was the focus of the outbreak. They also built two new hospitals to cope with the outbreak in a shorter timescale than many people can get a GP appointment in the UK!
Also, countries like Singapore, with a very disciplined society, have managed to slow the spread with its public health measures, because their population are used to cooperating with their government.
So, what are the problems with the dominant systems?
However laudable these achievements, there are several problems that contributed to the cause, and which may cause a massive global crisis.
If the speculation around the origins of the outbreak are to be believed, that they come from a diseased food chain, it means the Communist regime that prides itself on being able to mobilise a massive state-led public health response does not have a system in place to understand what constitutes wholesome food.
More importantly, China has embraced global capitalism – and it is seen as the powerhouse driving the global economy.
The adage that ‘if China sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold’, has never been more true, even though it sounds like a joke in bad taste.
If the disease takes a foothold across China, it could adversely affect fragile economic growth across the world.
Singapore is seen as an example of this capitalist model – but it is a ‘state’ that is entirely reliant on financial markets. There is no industry or agriculture worth speaking of. It may survive this viral outbreak from the perspective of human disease – but it may be killed off from the perspective of the disease of capitalism, given that it relies on a mysterious entity called ‘confidence’!
Values in society
In the West, fear of the virus has spread faster than the virus itself. As I write, with the exception of Italy at 366 tragic deaths, the countries of the west have death rates in single or double digits. At present, the number of deaths in the US is 22, and in the UK and Australia, it stands at just 3. Despite this, we have seen panic buying of masks and hand sanitisers; and the hoarding of toilet paper! We’ve seen people imposing on the state health service ‘just in case’ they’ve got the virus. The fear in society has led to an increase in racist abuse directed at people of far-east origin.
Trust in politics is at an all-time low in western societies. So, every time a politician says “Don’t Panic!”, it isn’t just that some of them sound like Lance-Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army – people remember that the person addressing them is one of the same politicians who often lie their way to victory.
Moreover, politicians are debating whether a wait-and-see policy is better than an active management policy. The debate is not whether it is better for their people, but for the economic outlook.
The solutions can sometimes make the problems worse
The biggest problem is that the measures needed to curb this outbreak, such as those taken in China and now in northern Italy, are potentially catastrophic for the global economy if they are necessary in other places.
The capitalist global economy relies on ‘confidence’, profits from its entertainment industry, and measures public health according to ‘working-days lost’.
Confidence is falling, we have seen the biggest drop in the financial markets even forcing a temporary halt to trading in the US Stock Exchange.
The entertainment industry faces a threat. The stadiums that will be used for Euro 2020 and the Olympics, or theatres and concert halls may be seen as breeding grounds for this virus.
Viruses don’t just spread across rooms through the air we breath, they spread across continents through the air we fly through. So the tourism industry could be impacted by the halting of global air travel – souring the public mood in a society where some consider a holiday in the sun something close to a fundamental human right!
In Britain, politicians planning for an epidemic have suggested that grandparents look after children if schools are closed. Do they not know that many grandparents are forced to work into their late sixties themselves before they can afford to retire? Have they not noticed that the liberal capitalist social order has encouraged families to be fragmented and atomised so that many parents don’t have anyone to help with childcare except the after-school club?
So, what’s the alternative?
It is against this backdrop that I would remind people of some of the lessons that the Islamic way of life offers. Many people have shared their thoughts on what Islam offers individuals in respect of CoronaVirus – but I want to address what Islam offers as a way of life – a way of life from the One who created man, that prevents many of the problems that man makes for himself and gives guidance for man to deal with tests and challenges. It is a way of life from its belief that shapes individual and societal values; that offers political, economic and social systems that address many of these matters.
In terms of Islamic governance, the Khalifah, his Wula (Governors) and Assistants have to look after people’s affairs – and implement specific Islamic rules, some of which are relevant to this situation.
With regards to the generality of looking after people’s affairs, the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said:
أَلاَ كُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ فَالأَمِيرُ الَّذِى عَلَى النَّاسِ رَاعٍ وَهُوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ
Each of you is a guardian and each of you is questioned over his subjects, the Imam who is responsible over the people and he is questioned over his responsibility (Bukhari & Muslim)
This would include, but not be limited to, meeting people’s health care needs – with measures not dissimilar to the expansion of hospital capacity in Wuhan, as well as looking for specific cures and vaccinations.
But there are specific rules that are invoked here – such as the instruction the Messenger of Allah – صلى الله عليه وسلم – to quarantine areas where there is an epidemic. ‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Auf said,
“I have heard Allah’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم saying, ‘If you hear about it (an outbreak of plague) in a land, do not go to it; but if the plague breaks out in a country where you are staying, do not run away from it.’” [Bukhari]
The second Khalifah of Islam, Umar ibn al Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, famously implemented this rule when there was an outbreak of plague in his time.
It would also mean implementing Islamic food hygiene standards. The rules of Islam demand that food should be both halal and tayyib. Animals that are used in the human food chain need to be kept in wholesome and sanitary conditions. So an Islamic government would have regulation, probably enforced by a branch of the judiciary known as the Qadi Hisbah, that would account food suppliers to this Islamic standard.
In terms of values, many Muslims have addressed this matter from a personal perspective, including the excellent reminders that life and death is in Allah ﷻ ’s Hands; that He ﷻ is the One who cures from sickness; and that if something is to befall us, no one can prevent it if He ﷻ has decreed it.
All of this can reduce fear and panic.
Similarly, knowing that Rizq (Provision) is from Allah ﷻ would prevent the extent of hoarding and stockpiling we are seeing today, which potentially skews markets and prices.
But the real impact of these ‘Islamic values’ and beliefs, is when the Imam of the Muslims, the Khalifah, offers these simple reminders which would mobilise support in the population when offering simple reminders – separating what is within the realm of human accountability and what is utterly beyond it.
In terms of economy, Islam’s economy is a real economy based on a trade in goods and services, not a fake one that thrives on countless transactions of fantasy products. This does not make it immune from problems, but it doesn’t make it as vulnerable as the spider’s web that is the capitalist economic system.
As well as having an economy that isn’t prone to boom and bust, the debates about ‘childcare’ and benefits that is occurring in the west are not so complex in Islam. Governments aren’t obliged to pay all citizens benefits if they are off sick – but are obliged to make sure everyone has food, shelter and clothing if they cannot afford these, or their close family cannot assist them with ease.
In addition, Islam’s strong commitment to family, community and neighbours stands in stark contrast to the individualistic approach in secular societies that makes people very vulnerable in societies where families are fragmented.
When thinking about the Coronavirus outbreak, and how Islam would address it – one cannot think purely in terms of individual actions.
Islam is a way of life that encompasses communities, societies and the global affairs – and these matters which sit at an ‘Ummah’ level are delegated to the Ameer of that Ummah, the Khalifah, to implement rules and policies that emanate from the Islamic creed.
This brief reflection shows that if the world had the alternative of the leadership of Islam as an example in such a crisis, then humanity wouldn’t have to accept to be trapped in this broken system that presides over a diseased world.
وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطًا لِّتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ عَلَيْكُمْ شَهِيدًا ۗ
And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you. [Al-Baqarah: 143]
Dr Abdul Wahid is currently the Chairman of the UK Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, the Times Higher Educational Supplement and Prospect Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, @AbdulWahidHT, or find him on Facebook, @AbdulWahid.HT