If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be amusing to observe how myopic we humans can be. When something — especially something bad — happens to me, there is a tendency to think that I am the only person in the world to whom this is happening. Similarly, there is the tendency to think that bad things that happen to people — especially people who are very different or far away — have no impact on me.
We love to talk about how the world is “shrinking.” And that is true. Distances that people used to take weeks to travel, we now cover in hours. I can get into a plane in New York City and a few hours later disembark in Beijing, half a world away. This is not a totally unalloyed blessing. As we learned to our horror in February 2020, if we humans can encircle the planet in hours, so can a virus.
The interconnectedness of which Pope Francis is fond of speaking describes the world we live in and, as Francis is well aware, that interconnectedness has many names and faces: international travel, globalization, international cooperation, the internet, global warming, and, yes, pandemics. It is just no longer true that “what happens in X, stays in X.” It spreads and spreads fast. The simple fact is that it is foolhardy in the extreme to assume that something will not impact me because it is “far away.”
One example worth noting: human trafficking.
Every year on 30 July the United Nations observes the International Day Against Human Trafficking. Caught up as the world is with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed hundreds of thousands of people and which is not nearly over, it is easy to forget other issues facing us. That is understandable. It is, however, short-sighted. Like it or not, recognize it or not, we are interconnected. We live in a world where increasingly the only thing we can do “on our own” is be alone.
Caritas Internationalis, an international Catholic relief group with which CNEWA often works, and Christian Organisations Against Trafficking Network (COATNET) produced a statement this year on the impact that COVID-19 is having on human trafficking. The loss of jobs occasioned by the pandemic has impacted many people who are living on “the edge.” Many of these are people whom CNEWA serves, especially in India and the violence-torn Middle East.
The closing of businesses and schools, while often necessary to combat the virus, has far reaching effects on peoples’ lives — especially the vulnerable. The loss of income has pushed many families into utter desperation. Their children, especially but not only young girls, become vulnerable to either being kidnapped for forced labor or the sex trade.
The closing of schools means that more children are staying home. Schools are often the primary source of nutrition for children. Close the schools and parents cannot feed their children. In some parts of the world such as India there has been a dramatic increase in child marriages, which is basically just “trafficking with a ceremony.” This, however, is a response some families feel forced to make when they can no longer afford to cover the food that children would normally get in school.
Many women’s religious communities in CNEWA’s world have been exerting heroic efforts to overcome the evils of human trafficking. It is not a simple problem. It is incredibly complex, and its roots are struck wide and deep. It is not merely a matter of preventing trafficking, child marriages, etc. It is also a matter of healing those who have been scarred for life by these evils.
Migrant workers, who are often both badly needed and badly treated, are also deeply impacted by the virus. They often live in cramped quarters under—at best—substandard hygienic conditions. Health care is unavailable and the virus finds a rich breeding ground. Here one can see the short sightedness of ignoring this problem. When farm workers are no longer able to work in a dignified and healthy way, they are no longer able to work — and that imperils the global food chain. Ultimately, that will impact even the privileged, first when food stuffs become expensive and later when they are simply unavailable. When migrant workers do not have work, they move on; they are, after all migrant. If they are unhealthy, they do not leave their pathogens behind. So to say that what happens to these people does not affect me is worse than uninformed. It is dangerous.
The interconnectedness with which Pope Francis is concerned is not some beautiful romantic notion. It is, rather, something that has benefits as well as considerable dangers. Being concerned about people who are different and far away, or people who suffer from poverty, disease and oppression, is a profoundly Christian thing. It is also a profoundly smart thing because “what happens in ‘Vegas’ most certainly no longer stays in ‘Vegas’.”
Sooner or later, in one form or another, it will be in our own communities.