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Moral responsibility in the time of pandemic

I was very struck by observations about the coronavirus pandemic made this week by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, on both BBC Radio’s Moral Maze and BBC TV’s Newsnight.

What was so arresting was his optimism about the long-term effects of this global emergency on people’s behaviour. He repeated more than once that the crisis was encouraging the best out of people, that it was bringing us together, that it was eliciting innumerable acts of kindness which would continue to multiply, and that when it was all over we would emerge as a different, more responsible and better society. It would arrest the destructive and selfish ethic of individualism that has driven society progressively off the rails and would turn us again into a more united and moral nation. We were now returning from the “I” to the “we”.

When asked on the Maze whether he wasn’t concerned by the scenes in the supermarkets, with selfish people buying up far more than they needed with the result that other shoppers were confronted by empty shelves and which might therefore give us a more negative view, he replied: “Oh totally and absolutely… but I don’t look too carefully at it”. Everyone laughed.

Well, maybe this is just a matter of temperament but I do look carefully at it. As Rabbi Sacks also acknowledged, people are capable of both good and bad. In this crisis we are witnessing both: the supermarkets reserving special shopping times for the elderly or front-line medical staff, the people putting cards under strangers’ doors asking if anyone inside needs help, the medical and nursing staff risking their health to treat patients in ever-more impossible conditions and many other such acts of communal caring – alongside the stripping of supermarket shelves, the astounding irresponsibility of people still packing into pubs, cafes and other public spaces and even reports of people stealing from food bank donations.

A crisis always brings out the best and the worst in people. In a state of panic, communal feeling is often squashed flat by the stampede for self-preservation. And in the west, which for two generations at least has not had to undergo the privations of war, which has enjoyed unprecedented plenty and choice and which has largely junked the religious codes which engender conscience, duty and self-discipline, the self-centred, narcissistic and irresponsible culture of “I” is overwhelmingly strong.

Nor has the crisis forced politicians and other ideologues to abandon poisonous political partisanship by opening their eyes to the danger that threatens us all. Those who consistently reverse offender and victim have been at it again.

Because President Trump refers to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, he has been accused of… racism. His attackers claim that the term is racist towards the Chinese.

Racism? Excuse me? Are these people for real? The term “Chinese virus” does not identify the Chinese people as inferior or single them out for comment in any way. It is merely, and obviously, a way of saying, correctly, that the virus originated in China and, rightly, that China must own its responsibility for it.

For the reason Trump has taken to using the term “Chinese virus” is that the Chinese regime has been trying to slough off its responsibility for the virus by asserting that it originated in the US. The regime has been boasting of its leading role in controlling the outbreak, threatening to spread the virus in the US by denying America drugs unless it stops criticising China, and actually expelling American journalists.

To suggest that China has nothing to do with Covid-19 is beyond perverse. Not only did this virus originate in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but investigations such as this one in the Wall Street Journal have shown that, by covering it up at the start and then destroying some crucial evidence, the Chinese regime was directly responsible for causing this global pandemic which otherwise could have been closed off at an early stage.

The WSJ observes of the Chinese denials of responsibility:

“A Wall Street Journal reconstruction paints a different picture, revealing how a series of early missteps, dating back to the very first patients, were compounded by political leaders who dragged their feet to inform the public of the risks and to take decisive control measures.

“Last week, Zhong Nanshan, one of China’s most highly regarded epidemiology experts and the leader of the National Health Commission’s task force on the epidemic, said officials had identified a coronavirus by Dec. 31 and took too long to publicly confirm human-to-human transmission. If action had been taken earlier, in December or even early January, “the number of sick would have been greatly reduced,” he said.”

The Chinese regime’s behaviour should be a wake-up call to the west which has for decades pretended to itself that the Chinese communist party is a valuable ally. It is not. It is a significant threat to the west. But as so often, short term economic greed and cultural laziness have blinded the west to unpleasant realities.

So it has allowed a situation to develop where it is disastrously dependent upon China for a range of essentials which has given the Chinese regime unparalleled potential control over western society (the most egregious recent example in Britain being the government’s decision to open up its electronic network to the Chinese regime through its tech arm Huawei which will partially supply the UK’s 5g development).

So what Trump is doing by referring to the “Chinese virus” is calling out the Chinese regime in its lies and identifying it as the threat that it is to western interests. Yet astoundingly, social media is pulsating with people doing the Chinese regime’s work for it by hailing China as heroic while demonising its western victims for telling the truth.

None of us can say how our society will be changed by this unprecedented crisis. We don’t know if there will be lasting social and cultural change or if society will spring back largely as it was before. We don’t know whether or how our domestic politics and the geopolitics of the world will have been changed. We don’t know whether on balance any such changes will be for the good or the bad. We can only hope that we will eventually emerge from all this stronger and better.

In the meantime, please do all keep your distance and stay well; and to those who have succumbed to Covid-19, I wish a speedy recovery. And in order to bring a modicum of light relief – so essential to combat the effects of psychological as well as social isolation – you might enjoy this video. I hope you laugh at this glorious Israeli performance as much as I did.

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