ROSARIO, Argentina – Pope Francis believes that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed “the best and worst” of each person, and that now more than ever, it’s important to recognize that the crisis can only be overcome by searching for the common good.

“The virus reminds us that the best way to take care of ourselves is by learning to care for and protect those who are close to us,” Francis said in a video message to a virtual seminar organized by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and the Vatican’s Academy for Social Sciences.

The pope said leaders should not “encourage, endorse or use mechanisms” that turn the “serious crisis” into a “tool of an electoral or social nature.”

“Discrediting the other only succeeds in destroying the possibility of finding agreements that help alleviate the effects of the pandemic in our communities, especially on the most excluded,” the pope said.

Those elected by the people to be public servants, Francis added, are called to “be at the service of the common good and not place the common good at the service of their own interests.”

“We all know the dynamics of the corruption” found in politics, he said, adding it is also the same for “the men and women of the Church. Ecclesiastical internal fights are a true leprosy that sickens and kills the Gospel.”

The Nov. 19-20 seminar titled “Latin America: Church, Pope Francis and the Scenarios of the Pandemic,” was held via Zoom, and included Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the Latin America commission; and remarks by Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, President of CELAM, the Latin American conference of bishops; and Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Though it has devastated economies throughout the world, the new coronavirus has thus far been particularly pervasive in Latin America, where health systems were much less prepared than those in most of Europe to deal with the virus, leading several governments to enforce extended quarantines – with Argentina having the world’s longest, at over 240 days, leading to a massive loss of GDP.

Pope Francis told the meeting that now more than ever it’s necessary to “regain awareness our common belonging.”

“We know that along with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are other social ills – the lack of a roof, the lack of land and the lack of work – that mark the level and these require a generous response and immediate attention,” he said.

Francis also noted that many families in the region are going through times of uncertainty and suffering situations of social injustice.

“This is evidenced by verifying that not everyone has the necessary resources to carry out the minimum protection measures against COVID-19: A safe roof where they can comply with social distancing, water, health resources to sanitize and disinfect the environments, stable work that guarantees access to benefits, to name the most essential,” he added.

In particular, the president of CELAM referred to various realities that challenge the continent and that have highlighted “the consequences of a historical and uneven structure that shows innumerable vulnerabilities throughout the region.”

Cabrejos said that it’s necessary to “guarantee quality food and medicine for the population, especially for the most vulnerable populations that run the risk of starvation and not having the necessary supply of medicinal oxygen.”

“The pandemic is affecting and will affect more seriously unemployed people, small entrepreneurs and those who work in the popular and solidarity economy, as well as the elderly population, people with disabilities, those deprived of liberty, to boys and girls and housewives, students and migrants,” said the Mexican prelate.

Also taking part was Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Afonso Nobre, who warned against the dangers of reaching a tipping point in the Amazon rain forest: If deforestation does not end now, the entire region would become a savanna in the next 30 years. He urged for a sustainable development model with a “green deal,” product of a “novel circular green economy” in the post-pandemic world.

Barcena praised Pope Francis’s leadership in the region, and highlighted his definition of populism developed in his recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, in which the Argentine pontiff distinguishes between the leaders who actually work in favor of the people, and those who claim to promote what the people want, but instead focus on advancing their own interests.

“We have to do as much as we can with the leaderships we have today in Latin America, there’s no alternative to this,” Barcena said, referring to the need to overcome inequalities in the world’s most unequal region, despite what one of the participants described as questionable leadership in some of these countries. “Governments can’t do it alone, society cannot do it alone, and much less can the markets do it alone.”

In his video message, Francis acknowledged that the world will continue to “experience the devastating effects of the pandemic for a long time,” while highlighting that the “path of solidarity as justice is the best expression of love and closeness.”

Francis also said that he hopes the online initiative “inspires paths, awaken processes, creates alliances and promotes all the necessary mechanisms to guarantee a dignified life to our peoples, especially the most excluded, through the experience of fraternity and the construction of social friendship.”

When he speaks of focusing particularly on those who’re excluded, the pope said, he does not mean to “to give alms to the most excluded, or as a gesture of beneficence, no: As a hermeneutical key. We have to start from there, from every human periphery, if we don’t start from there, we will be wrong.”

History’s first pope from the global south highlighted the fact that, despite the “gloomy panorama” the region faces, the people from Latin American “teach us that they are people with souls who know how to face crises with courage and know how to generate voices that shout in the desert to pave the way for the Lord.”

“Please, let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope!” he exclaimed. “The path of solidarity as well as justice is the best expression of love and closeness. From this crisis, we can come out better, and this is what so many of our sisters and brothers have witnessed in the daily giving of their lives and in the initiatives that the people of God have generated.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma