In 1651, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, writing about the social contract, warned that without a strong central government man reverts to his natural state of self-interest and life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. The West has rejected Hobbes’ philosophy and we have seen the erosion of strong central government across decades.
And the school girl with her school bag.
Our leaders have freed up trade, cut red tape, shed essential utilities to private hands, cut back research funding, denigrated science as a matter of opinion and equated the term ‘expert’ with wanker. Critical debate has been scorned as the snivelling of ‘the chardonnay set’; control has been ceded to global corporations and ‘the bottom line’ has become gospel.
The result is pervasive distrust of politicians, lack of confidence in institutions and the social system and a fractured Fourth Estate, undermined by both self-serving politicians crying ‘fake news’ to avoid transparency, and by the media itself which increasingly puts profit before principle.
Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a broken social system that has resulted in moral and ethical chaos, how well are our governments doing in leading and protecting their citizens from what has become a devastating threat to humanity?
Ironically, those doing best seem to be those countries where central Government controls are strongest. Time will tell if the chaotic international order will settle with a very different balance of power in place from that we have taken for granted.
There is extreme confusion in the western world, where public health and economic goals are being traded by our politicians and bureaucrats who seem far more concerned about their political future and partisan politics than the welfare of the public at large.
Times of crisis reveal how deeply our core values run. Our most central value in good times is to care for all those in need, generally agreeing that every person’s life is worth preserving. Wartime brings out our best and worst tendencies. Sacrifices for home and country vie with self-preservation and survival of the fittest; it is a ‘triage’ judgment about whose injuries are least likely to respond to treatment, a matter of allocating scarce resources, medical personnel and supplies. Nationalistic and ethnic allegiances do compete with the broader interests of humanity; we kill our enemies and protect our own. On a sinking ship, the ethical guideline was ‘women and children first’, with the ship’s captain last to leave. Pragmatism and utilitarianism have vied with altruism throughout history.
Now, with the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19, we face a new dilemma – of those infected, who to treat and who to let die?
If you’re over 60 watch out. And if you’re over 70 don’t expect a bed when the rush is on. A ‘good’ doctor should make the difficult decision to let us oldies go first. Expect to say goodbye to ‘your loved ones’, asserted the 55-year-old gung-ho Boris Johnson at the outset. Now look at the twit! He, who boasted proudly to a journalist after visiting a hospital, ‘I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know’. Three of the four most important figures in the UK’s fight against the COVID-19 are now infected – the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the Chief Medical Officer.
President Trump, worried about his electoral prospects in November, because he can’t get out of the White House to whip up the crowds, figures 1-2% of the population dead is neither here nor there. Locking down is un-American. He wants to ‘pack the churches by Easter’. That ‘would be a beautiful thing’. Trump’s health advisors are clearly struggling to shut up the genius who knows everything about everything.
Our leader, Scotty from marketing, a more compassionate man, is wearing out his pants kneeling on the floor, praying to the same God who brought us this pestilence. He favors an incremental approach. No ‘Go fast and go hard’ for him. So as late as last Friday night 33 health professionals, who had been stranded in South America, arrived in Sydney, evaded police, scattered through the domestic terminal and 27 flew to their homes (only 6 were captured for quarantine) .
These three leaders place themselves front-and-center, in what is being described in the Atlantic Monthly as ‘the Boomer Remover’.
Ageism and disregard for the elderly is back in style and it is harmful to all. Every disease takes its toll on older people but focusing on the aged is sending an ill-informed message to the young, contributing to a cavalier attitude as many young people put their lives at risk believing they will simply catch a cold.
The young are not immune, not even infants. By Saturday 28th March, those aged 20-29 recorded the highest number of confirmed cases in Australia with more than 700 of that demographic group diagnosed with COVID-19, according to federal health figures.
In Italy and Spain, it may be the tendency to touch one another more, to kiss on the cheek, to gather more in public places, not just age, that accounts for a higher death rate. By mid-March the Italian data showed the highest mortality rate was for those in their 50s. Italian and South Korean men smoke more than women, yet in South Korea it is younger women, not older men, who are dying more often.
The messaging is both confusing and inhumane. We need to understand that we are all in this together, what affects one person anywhere affects us all everywhere. Social media is now on overdrive and a story circulating raises several relevant questions about our leaders and their priorities.
There is a plane with five passengers on board: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, the Pope and a 10-year-old schoolgirl. The plane is about to crash and there are only four parachutes. Trump leaps up first. ‘I’m the smartest man in the USA. In fact, I’m the smartest man in the world. I can fix everything. There are people dying who haven’t died before. Not me.’ He takes one and jumps. Boris asserts: ‘Sick or not sick, I’m needed to sort out Britain. I’m the Prime Minister and I have barely started.’ He takes one and jumps. The Pope looks sadly at the two females he is leaving behind. ‘I’m so sorry, but the world needs the Catholic Church. It’s stuffed up and I haven’t finished sorting it out’. He takes one and jumps. Angela turns to the young girl and says. ‘You can have the last parachute. I have lived much of my life and yours is only just starting’. The girl replies, ‘Don’t worry, there are two parachutes left, the smartest man in the world took my school bag.’
Now how can we pull this off?
Patricia Edgar and Don Edgar are sociologists