Coronavirus may shake us out of our individualist slumber
Pandemic holds out a rare opportunity for moral growth and learning
A pedestrian walks through a deserted central shopping district at night in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Paul Hanna/Bloomberg
There has been some debate about whether emergency measures to tackle coronavirus might represent a threat to civil liberties. While this is a legitimate concern, a question no less important is how we habitually make use of our precious liberties, and whether we are capable of freely responding to the needs of our neighbours, especially the most vulnerable, such as the sick, elderly, and poor, in more humdrum, non-pandemic times.
Public emergencies have a way of tapping into citizens’ capacity for solidarity and self-sacrifice. Something great is self-evidently at stake: the health, and indeed the very life, of my family, neighbours, and fellow citizens. So I rise to the occasion, by voluntarily self-isolating, shopping for my elderly neighbours, or doing whatever else it takes to pull us all through the crisis.
In more normal times, however, these reserves of solidarity, or what social scientists often refer to as “social capital”, may stagnate. In the absence of a life-and-death public crisis, we – and I have in mind especially citizens of Western nations – all too easily slip back into our habits of mind-numbing consumerism and the single-minded pursuit of professional success.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with enjoying consumer goods or being professionally ambitious. However, the philosophy of individual self-sufficiency and self-determination that often accompanies them may induce us to view our personal projects as somehow unfolding in a self-contained bubble, perhaps the bubble of my own family, business, or close circle of friends.
In the midst of our quest for individual fulfilment, individualised entertainment, and professional success, we may begin to see our lives as moving on parallel tracks to those of our neighbours, “ships passing in the night”. We may not even know the names of the people living next door.
Modern forms of individualism, such as the myth of the “self-made man” and the notion of consumers as individual “utility-maximisers” who harness the market to their personal preferences, have obscured the degree to which our life choices are profoundly intertwined with the choices and projects of our neighbours.
The Covid-19 pandemic poses a very serious threat to our health and to our economies. But it also holds out a rare opportunity for moral growth and learning: it casts a penetrating light over aspects of our shared humanity that had receded from view in recent decades, in particular our profound vulnerability to each other’s behaviour and choices.
The myth of individual independence and self-sufficiency has relentlessly shaped Western economies and cultures for generations, and has become particularly pervasive among younger generations, who are often compelled to make choices unmoored from any well-defined moral or religious tradition.
We are taught to believe that each one of us can freely carve out his or her own social media profile, career and lifestyle, guided only by the maxim, “Be true unto yourself”. We are taught to believe that if we depend on others, it is more by choice than by strict necessity. Indeed, in the popular mind, dependency has even become a dirty word, a term associated with humiliation and indignity.
Then came coronavirus. And suddenly, it became more difficult to believe in the myth of an autonomous, self-made life. The old expression, “No man is an island” suddenly took on a significance in our collective consciousness that few of us could have even imagined.
The coronavirus is a very painful medicine to swallow. But in the midst of all of the suffering and uncertainty that has come in its wake, this elusive virus may, ironically, prove to be a vaccine, or at least an antiviral, for the creeping disease of individualism.
The potentially devastating impact of this socially-transmitted virus may free us from the false sense of self-sufficiency that has embedded itself, over many decades, in the collective consciousness of Western nations.
Like it or not, each one of us is embedded within an elaborate social ecology, and whether we acknowledge it or not, our personal well-being depends intimately on the health of the society that hosts us within its bosom, and on the behaviour of its members.
That universal dependency is brought home to us, all too painfully, when we see hospitals in Italy and Spain overrun with patients, medical personnel dying for the lack of adequate protective clothing, and a tragic and accelerating death toll that could have been greatly reduced by more responsible social distancing measures and more prudent management of the crisis.
There is much uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, but one thing is certain: young and old, rich and poor, we are all in this together, and if we do not wake up and do whatever it takes to prevent this virus from consuming our society, we will all pay very dearly, both in precious lives, and in economic development.
Let us hope that this unfolding crisis will shake us out of our individualist slumber and bring home to us, perhaps like never before, the fact of our mutual dependency, and the critical need for a citizenry with an active and intelligent sense of civic friendship and solidarity.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain