What have humanists learned after six months into the pandemic?

An online chat with six humanist activists from all around the world

  • blog Type / Membership blog
  • Date / 30 July 2020
  • By / Giovanni Gaetani

As part of our #GlobalHumanismNow campaign, on 25 July Humanists International organised an online meeting with six humanist activists from across the globe on the theme “Humanism and COVID-19, six months on” – watch the video of their meeting or read a short recap of their contributions below.

Despite representing six different regions, the speakers’ contributions shared some common themes, such as battles to combat conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’, the impact of the pandemic on mental health, the rise in racist acts of violence, and the importance of looking out for the most vulnerable communities in society.

The online meeting was chaired by the President of Humanists International, Andrew Copson. In his introduction, Andrew took stock of the situation:

“We are roughly six months on into the start of the pandemic, 15 millions confirmed cases globally, over 600,000 deaths confirmed as a result of this virus […] Humanists groups have been doing a lot in this situation and this event is to hear a little bit from them on how the pandemic is affecting the humanism movement regionally and globally, how humanist organizations are facing the emergency, and which humanist values we should stick to most in this moment”.

Given that the USA is currently the worst affected country in the world (4,2 million confirmed cases, more than 147,000 deaths) Rebecca Hale from the American Humanist Association was the first one to speak:

“Humanism is a way of life and I think we are seeing many of our core values on full display, maybe more so because of the conflict (at least in the US ) between science and superstition, willful ignorance and extreme religious beliefs. The success stories in the struggle against COVID-19 come from the sciences, not from the religious communities. God is not protecting the true believers from the virus, masks, social distancing and rigorous hand washing is.

“As Humanists we do not assign the baggage of malevolence to the virus, it is a part of nature. It is a reality and we strive to learn more, we strive to understand. We follow the scientists recommendations. We trust in science and more than ever put our lives in the hands of our fellow humans, understanding that the majority of us want to do what is reasonable, all the while hoping that the selfishness of our President does not kill us, or anyone else.”

When asked about the work of humanist organizations in North America, Rebecca gave some inspiring examples – you can read the full list here:

  • many individuals have turned to making masks, using their 3-D printers to make face shields for first responders and healthcare workers;
  • a very creative humanist activist, Margaret Downey, dressed up as Elmo and drove around her community during the lockdown, waving to children and tossing small gifts to them, while fundraising money for the Freethought Society;
  • humanist chaplains are redirecting their energies from taking care of patients to taking care of healthworkers.

David Pineda, President of Humanists Guatemala, was the second one to speak:

“One of Humanists Guatemala’s main successes in the last two years has been our series of live events: comedy shows, book clubs, conferences, etc. We achieved that also thanks to the financial support of Humanists International. But now this had to stop and we moved all our activities online. This is working well for now, also because in this way we can reach a bigger and more diverse audience. However, we are fully aware the online meetings cannot replace meetings in person.

“The reason why live “in-person” meetings are so important for us is because humanists in Guatemala are often very isolated from the rest of the community. Humanists are often the only ones in their families or in their local areas, so having the chance to meet other like-minded people in real life, even just for a beer or a coffee, is a very liberating and rewarding feeling.”

David also underlined that:

  • other humanist organizations from Latin America were better prepared to move all their activities online because their online presence was already massive before the pandemic – for example the Secular Humanist Society of Peru;
  • the common struggle of all Latin American humanist organizations has been fighting superstition and misinformation, especially when it comes to medical fake news and dangerous conspiracies theories;
  • few Latin American humanist organizations have been able to engage in humanitarian work, since Latin American organizations are too small to be able to do it.

The third speaker of the panel was Roslyn Mould from the Humanist Association of Ghana:

“When the President of Ghana announced the start of the lock down, our lives changed over night. Many Ghanaian citizens live hand to mouth, they are daily workers and so many people in our community ended up not having enough food to eat. The Humanist Association of Ghana tried to help individuals in need by providing them with food and basic goods.

“We moved all our activities online, and this has paradoxically improved our team capacities, since now we meet every week instead of once per month. We also decided to spread scientific information about the virus on social media. We informed people about the disease using the reports of the WHO and anything that has been validated by the global scientific community.

But fake news spreads fast and Roslyn mentioned that:

  • in many African countries people keep sharing conspiracy theories, including the one that says that a cure has been founded in Madagascar or in Sierra Leone;
  • some Ghanaian companies started selling miraculous cures and herbal medicines to treat COVID-19;
  • some African humanist organizations (especially in Kenya and Nigeria) have seized this opportunity to revitalise their activities, while others unfortunately had to “hibernate” their activities given the limits of internet connection in their countries.

Uttam Niraula from SOCH Nepal was the fourth speaker of the panel. He reiterated some points just expressed by Roslyn, agreeing that as humanists the first enemy to fight is superstition:

“At the beginning of the pandemic, Hindu priests in Nepal started spreading the news that drinking cow urine could cure COVID-19, and many people did. Other people started saying that this coronavirus is a sort of goddess, and so they gathered in public to pray to her, asking her to stop the pandemic. At the very beginning of the pandemic, around six Muslim pilgrims tested positive for the virus. This news caused a backlash of hatred against the whole Muslim community in Nepal, accused of spreading the virus in the country, and we as humanists have fought against the spreading of this fake news.

“SOCH Nepal has been in the front line against the virus. We worked together with the WHO and the Health Minister to provide scientific information about COVID-19. We even developed our own mobile application, which is owned by the Ministry of Health. Our work against superstition has been so successful that the spokesperson of the Ministry of Health backed up our approach by inviting people to not pray against the coronavirus, but to rather fight it by following the advice of scientists and experts.”

Uttam also mentioned that SOCH Nepal has fought against the virus on other fronts:

  • when the pandemic hit India, hundred of thousands of Nepali citizens who used to work in India wanted to come back to Nepal, but prevented them from crossing the border; SOCH Nepal helped them by providing them with tents, water, food and other basic goods;
  • SOCH Nepal also helped members of the Dalit minority and other daily wage workers, who have been the most adversely affected by the virus;
  • the mental health of Nepalese people have been dramatically affected, with at least 1,647 people committing suicide, but SOCH Nepal could not do anything to help them.

Kirstine Kærn from the Danish Humanist Association was the last speaker of the panel:

“Like in many other parts of the world also in Europe we have seen a spike in mental health issues, domestic violence, racist attacks, especially against Asian people and migrants, who have been accused of spreading the virus in our region.

“A problem that affected many European humanist organizations has been the interruption of all ceremonies, especially humanist funerals. People had to process their mourning in a very different way, and many humanist chaplains helped them in this.

Kirstine also underlined how humanists in Europe were surprised to see the different response of each country in the region:

  • countries like Italy or Spain implemented very strict lockdown measures, while other (like Sweden) chose an opposite approach;
  • some countries in Eastern Europe even tried to seize this opportunity to pass some regressive laws, for example in Poland, where the parliament tried to restrict even further the right of women to abortion, or in Hungary, where Orban has claimed and obtained full powers from the parliament.

Andrew Copson closed this meeting with a positive message of unity and solidarity:

“The only thing that definitely won’t change after this pandemic is the inclusive and diverse nature of our global humanist movement. We will keep sharing and supporting each other across borders. Thank you to all humanist organisations who are doing it today.”


WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London