Apr 15, 2020

It is a paradox: in the midst of suffering and dying, there is an unfamiliar human warmth. I have encountered it at several levels.

Strangers in the street greet me with a “Nice weather” or a “G’day”. A neighbour, knowing that I cannot drive, has offered to shop for me. The daughter of a deceased friend has twice refused payment for the load of vegetables she dumped in my kitchen without being asked.

The media have encouraged this opening to others, but it was also happening independently. People are telephoning just for a chat. They extend conscious gratitude to those especially exposed – GP’s and pharmacists,  hospital staff, check-out operators in supermarkets, carers for the disabled, all whose work involves risk.

But the paradox goes well beyond these personal matters. It may have taken a dramatic surge in unemployment to awaken them, but governments around the world have shown an urgent concern for the unemployed and the desperate.

This whole social phenomenon is not new. I am old enough to remember a similar spirit abroad during the Second World War, that last time when we were conscious of being “all in the same boat”. Then, too, we valued others’ contributions, moved not simply by the pragmatic calculation that we needed them, but in a way that involved real human respect and generosity of heart.

This communal appreciation did not persist. After the war for ten, twenty years it could still be felt, and it was a wave we as a society might have caught. Aid was given to a shattered Germany. The prosperity of the fifties with its access to higher education took place in an atmosphere of togetherness, and the civil rights movements in the sixties continued it. These might have led to a more humane consolidation of that co-operative communal sense by providing it with an intellectual and economic base.

In the event, the opposite happened. Of course, economic and political conflicts had never ceased – 1956 already saw Israel, Britain, France and Egypt locked in an economic war while Russia was invading Hungary – and as time passed the narrower mindset of self-interest gradually took over the rich nations. Developed countries have consistently failed to meet UN recommendations for international aid.

It became the received assumption that the sole obligation of companies was to their shareholders, and lawyers went along while few investors disagreed. At the level of international trade, global enterprises maximised opportunities for profit without concern for those who were thereby disadvantaged. Nations measured success by growth in GDP and GNI without attending either to equity of distribution or to those human needs that cannot be measured financially but whose neglect does cost money: needs arising for instance from dislocation or from reliance on a single crop.

No one preached all this as an ideal governing the lives of ordinary people, but it seeped into every-day consciousness. University education was increasingly seen as merely a preparation for increased wealth. The profits achieved by new technology were not shared with those whose jobs were rendered redundant – such matters were not given the priority they deserved. Life-saving drugs were sometimes priced out of the reach of many who needed them. Even sport became so industrialised by the opportunities offered by television that its older ideals became threatened: football clubs were no longer really local, tennis stars were playing as much for money as for the game.

Few today can remember when it was different. Of course times, technology, population, have changed – it is all harder now; it is true that in recent decades world poverty has greatly diminished, and that much of this is due to modern technology and to market forces working well. But it could become much better if our renewed sensitivity in this present crisis should alert us to the tunnel-vision character of our social assumptions.

If we reject that tunnel-vision – if we regard it as intolerable that anyone should be homeless and hungry, without regard to what they “deserve”; or that any disabled people should be barely coping; or that nurses, social workers, and especially job seekers should receive a derisory pay – in short, if we move into life at ordinary times the sensitivities which the coronavirus has stimulated us to see – then out of this crisis will come something very good.

The Second World War, with all its evil, advanced technology greatly; is it possible that out of this new evil could emerge an advance, not of technology, but of social compassion?

Michael James Kelly is a retired teacher of high-school mathematics. He has a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science.

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