Defend Truth


Covid-19 can be humanity’s ‘finest hour’


Dr Paul Vorster is a senior research specialist at The Ethics Institute.

We have the power to not let this pandemic define our worst selves, but rather define our best as a species. We have an opportunity in the shadow of the threat to transcend egocentricity and start to behave in a more sociocentric manner — to care for those that cannot care for themselves and to demonstrate courage.

Humanity faces a threat second to none. At the time of writing, there were 424,802 infections and 18,962 deaths due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the respiratory disease known as Covid-19. With more than 197 territories affected, it is a global threat. Economies are being badly damaged as stock markets fall and countries effectively shut their borders. The effect is not just illness, but possible economic collapse and, in a worst-case scenario, social collapse.

People are panicking and buying out essential goods from supermarkets. In a more horrific turn of events, my local supermarket had incidents of older people, who are at most risk of death in the pandemic, being shunted aside as younger and stronger citizens with more buying power stockpiled goods.

There are stories of people ignoring the risk of the virus and being irresponsible; a new social media sensation has people exposing themselves to the virus for excitement. Do they not realise their health may affect the health of others?

Constant myths and fake news have caused panic and discrimination against citizens from countries where the outbreak is at its worst. Some people discriminate against those of Asian descent as if they are not victims but usurpers. The same has happened to Europeans.

There is something we can do. We have the power to not let this pandemic define our worst selves, but rather for it to define our very best as a species. We have an opportunity in the shadow of the threat to transcend beyond our egocentricity and start to behave in a more sociocentric manner: To care for those that cannot care for themselves and to demonstrate courage.

History has lessons for us. A little more than 2,000 years ago the Greeks were a disparate group of clans and city-states, each with their own culture and traditions. They hated one another. Greeks from various city-states viewed other Greeks as sub-human and they were often at war with each other.

But then the Greeks faced a larger threat, in the form of the well-coordinated and integrated Persian army. The Persians invaded Greece and capitalised on the lack of coordination between the local adversaries to wipe out the Greek way of life, one clan and city-state at a time. The Greeks did not just face defeat, but the annihilation of their people and diverse culture.

How did the Greeks respond? They chose to unite against this enemy, forming the first democratic republic where every Greek citizen was a Greek for the first time in the region’s long history. Some Greek city-states sacrificed their own existence to slow down the Persians and give the newly formed republic the time it needed to put differences aside and unite against a common enemy. This was the progress of the highest level and they achieved it. They drove back the Persians.

Covid-19 is a common threat to all humanity. No matter our religious backgrounds, our ethnicities, or our sexual orientations; whether we are politically conservative or liberal; or whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist or of any other religious affiliation; whether we are male, female, transgender, gender-neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, all, or a combination of each; Covid-19 does not discriminate. It capitalises on our “worst-selves” — like the infighting in the early Greek states — to destroy our social cohesion.

We need to stand up and unite. We need to put aside our differences and focus on the one thing that binds us together. That thing is human suffering. No matter your background, each of us can feel pain, either physically or emotionally. We have the responsibility to use this threat to better ourselves as a global community forever: to ensure we reduce suffering for everyone.

Our diversity is a strength, everyone always says. Indeed, it is, but only if it is coordinated effectively and mutually beneficial. Diversity, if egotistical, can cause infighting and social separation.

Humans are the only species that will travel across the globe to help others they have never met in times of disaster. This type of behaviour demonstrates that we can be more than we are. We have the capacity for empathy and courage. We can overcome our animalistic instincts and do what is reasonable and good.

Let us thus not let Covid-19 exploit our worst-selves. Let us define our own terms. Let us do what is good for ourselves and others and not just what is good for the self. We are just at the beginning of this pandemic, there may be many months ahead of us.

Philip Zimbardo, one of the greatest social psychologists of our time, made an interesting observation. He said times of great tragedy such as war, genocide and disaster bring out both the best of us and worst of us. Nazis persecuted Jews during a time of war, but other German citizens, at risk to themselves, saved thousands. The same situation in which evil thrives has the potential to throw up heroes. Real heroes look no different from you or me, it is in their actions that they are different. It is when people tap into their moral courage and do what is good for everyone that mankind is at its best. 

We must unlock our heroism and ethical courage and have empathy for those weaker than us during this trying time. Let the young protect the old, the strong protect the weak, and let each of us do our part to help those who will be in the most need in the coming months.

We have a responsibility to think in terms of a sociocentric “we” and not the egocentric “me”.  If we can do this, and we know we can, Covid-19 will be humanity’s “finest hour”. DM


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