Humanist input to Tower Hamlets ‘Interfaith’ gathering for covid victims.

Our group was pleased to accept an invitation to speak at this important virtual event in London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 25.2.21 alongside many community and faith leaders.

Other speakers included the local MP, Rushanara Ali, the High Commissioner for Bangladesh, the Mayor and several councillors, and representatives of local faith communities.

The stated aim was to provide support and comfort to the community which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. It was also used to encourage the community to participate in the vaccination programme.

Speakers paid tribute to the work carried out by faith communities during what has been a very difficult year. A number of faith leaders described Covid as a divine test for humanity, and expressed thanks for what they believe was divine inspiration behind creation of vaccines. The contribution, by our group’s chair Paul Kaufman, provided a humanist perspective:

Clockwise from top left: LBTH Mayor John Biggs; Rushanara Ali MP for Bethnal Green; Cllr Ullah, Mayoral advisor for public realm; Unmesh Desai, Member London Assembly City East; Her Excellency Saida Tasneem, High Commissioner Bangladesh; Cllr Islam; LBTH speaker.


Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Humanists don’t have any religious belief or belief in an afterlife. But I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with faith leaders in giving this message.  We are all united in our belief in the importance of compassion, mutual respect and hope.

The 2021 census takes place next month. The last census in 2011 showed that those of us with no religious belief make up the third largest belief group in the Borough. The non-religious don’t get comfort or hope from prayer or from belief in an afterlife. However, many of us as Humanists do get comfort and hope from other things which, for us, are more meaningful and real.

Pandemics are not new. Disease is one of many horrible natural phenomena that humans have always had to contend with.  The earliest recorded pandemic in this country caused devastation at Barking Abbey in 664 AD.  The plague of 1665  took the lives of a quarter of London’s population, and 100 years ago a flu pandemic killed around 50 million world-wide.

Covid has been dreadful and our hearts go out to every single victim. But at least we now understand  what  causes pandemics and how they can be  dealt with. We don’t have to endure the blind panic, quack remedies and superstition of the past. 

So hope for us lies in all the things we know can be done and which have helped to reduce the devastation caused by Covid. While the toll has been dreadful we know from past pandemics that without the measures taken the outcome would have been many times worse.  We should celebrate the advances in human knowledge  which make this possible.

We can take much comfort from the way the response to Covid has brought out the best in people – the importance of fellowship, and what we can achieve when we all work together. We of course pay tribute to all those working on the front line – the NHS and shop staff, delivery drivers and cleaners, police officers, care workers and so many others. 

We should also recognise the sacrifice of the majority who have followed the guidelines as part of the collective effort to avoid spreading the disease, and everyone who has reached out to those less fortunate, in food-banks and elsewhere. I should add that the non-religious have, as well as those of faith, played an important part in this.

Finally, we can take both hope and comfort from the fact that science and massive collective effort has led to the vaccination programme which casts a bright light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. We owe it to each other, and to those who have made so much sacrifice, to all take part in the programme.

Humans have survived many pandemics and have gone on to thrive. Let us emerge from this suffering with greater appreciation of each other, of our natural world, of science, and of the importance of making the most of this life.  Last but not least, let us all vow to do more to address the inequalities which have caused some communities to suffer so much more than others.

Thank you.

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