“The only thing which will redeem mankind is cooperation” said the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Perhaps only a real crisis will enable us truly to appreciate what this means and what it takes.
The impact of the COVID-19 virus is seen by some to be akin to being in a world war, though military metaphors may be unhelpful. The extent of disruption may be as extensive for many people. On this occasion, however, we are all in it together. There is a common “enemy”. We cannot overwhelm it by force. We do need to help each other, to find a vaccine, to reduce the risk of infection, to provide support to those afflicted and so on.
Unless we choose to look for scapegoats, there is no us and them. This time, with a very few exceptions, no man or woman is an island. While we must do what we can to reduce transmission, physical borders and walls are a partial protection only to keep out that which threatens us.
Maybe, just maybe, this provides us with the very opportunity we need. Hubris and manipulation will have limited traction. Humility and honesty are the only currency. Leaders will emerge who manifest these qualities. The rest of us have choices. When we are fearful, the natural reaction may be to retreat into self-protection. Fight, flight or freeze. But we’ll need to try and override that understandable impulse.
Thinking about the needs of others as well as ourselves will take conscious thought, compassion and kindness. That is what we need to do to survive, to get through this. What is in your interests is also likely to be in mine. What might that mean in families, in communities and in our nations? How will that fit with “self-isolation?” It is in our mutual interests to reduce contact as much as possible. Perhaps, however, we will reach a stage where self-isolation needs to be balanced with being available to others?
How we resolve such apparent dilemmas may be some of the biggest challenges in this whole experience. Let’s keep asking questions and listening to others to ascertain their needs, hopes and fears. Let’s acknowledge these and try to offer appropriate reassurance and help. Let’s explore what we can realistically do for each other.
Above all, let’s hold on to hope. The hope of a future where we recognise that we – and the planet which sustains us - are interdependent, vulnerable and much in need of cooperation in order to survive.
Footnote: one of my favourite bands is Pendragon. Their latest epic album is entitled 'Love over Fear'. That says it all!
John Sturrock QC, 17 March 2020