In the way these things tend to happen retrospectively, one might wonder if the Coronavirus pandemic of 2019/20 won’t be eventually remembered as “The Selfish Flu”.
One of the very many problems currently faced by world governments is apparently neither a problem of science nor politics. It is, rather, a problem of human nature. The COVID-19 virus is largely (but not entirely) skewed in terms of the harm it does towards certain demographics. Around eighty percent of those who catch this disease will experience it in a very mild form or won’t even know they’ve had it at all. The real danger this virus poses is for people with pre-existing conditions, but especially those in the older age bracket.
And with that you can hear the sigh of relief from that part of the population who think they have been given a pass to get out of this crisis. The social contract suddenly has an exemption clause and it’s for acts of God and paaaaarty…
Shocking videos from Benidorm, South Beach, to Disneyland have proved the point. They depict the young or fatalistic for whom the eighty percent figure has stuck in their head. Those are good odds, they think. They’ve had worse. They’re not going to be affected, so why stop their fun? Why avoid crowded bars, nightclubs, gyms, beaches, restaurants for a mild flu? Why, in fact, bother to do anything other than rush into the local supermarket and buy too much of everything? Old lady standing in the way? Don’t worry. You’ve got longer arms. She can’t reach the higher shelves anyway.
What fails to spark somewhere in these fun-addled brains is the possibility that being sensible today will help others survive tomorrow. If they would only increase their social distancing, the spread of the virus would slow down as it passes through the community. In Britain that reduced spread means fewer people get it at any one moment, meaning fewer people need to make use of the NHS, more critical care beds are available, and more respirators are left for the severest cases.
Yet that message simply doesn’t get through. And it doesn’t get through because in the same way some governments didn’t prepare adequately for this once-in-century pandemic, we’ve not prepared successive generations to value the big-ticket emotional items such as compassion, generosity, and communality that any good human being should have. It is a moral act when any of us give up something in order to ensure unseen benefits enjoyed by others. It’s also impossible to do if you are incapable of understanding the logic.
So, why don’t they understand? Perhaps it’s because much of this is a matter of ethics and the kind of moral education that’s missing from too many of our schools as well as, more broadly, culture. It’s about those gnarly problems that make you stop and think about the great chains of causality that occur in life. These are the lessons of Aesop’s Fables that perhaps haven’t been adequately translated into the latest Fortnite update; where the lesson about a mouse helping a lion has been replaced by the need to machine gun everybody around you in order to save yourself.
Yet these are the lessons that teach us manners, those odd social graces that seem like a relic of more servile days. Too often we wrap selfishness with some notional “greater good”. Saving the planet is often posed as a duty to “our children” yet it’s become a form of surly protest towards older generations rather than as an end unto itself.
Health too is framed as the individual saving themselves. That is not in itself wrong, but into the moral vacuum appear those casually cruel arguments in favour of taxing the obese (“they eat too much anyway”), making smokers pay for their care (“it’s all their fault”), and significantly much worse. This is to view problems from the selfish end. Doing something from which you might not yourself gain has no part in the thinking. Have another beer. We’re not part of the problem.
The result is government messaging that simply doesn’t appear to be getting through. In the UK, government scientists are left sounding like John Le Mesurier in Dad’s Army, a good natured man tugging his ear as he gently asks, “if you wouldn’t mind awfully, would it be possible for you to avoid catching this beastly virus?”
Nobody listens. They just lean even closer to their neighbour and shout over the music in order to complain about their incessant dry, tickly cough.