Schools are closed. Flights cancelled. Highways and trains deserted. People are asked to minimise social contact. At first, the coronavirus appeared to be not much different from a normal flu. But then it spread in almost no time across 100 states around the world. Initially, the measures taken by the Italian government seemed extreme, perhaps exaggerated – now several countries are following the Italian example, including Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. The most urgent ethical issue raised by the coronavirus will be the allocation of limited resources, including hospital space. There are also concerns of global justice, given the huge differences between states with regard to their ability to deal with the virus. Despite the fatal effects of this pandemic, we also hear voices that view it as a chance and express the hope that it might bring about some positive changes in society. How will covid-19 affect us – as individuals and as a society? Will it make us more egoistic (“My family first!”) or will it bring us closer together, making us realise how much we depend on each other? Can we expect anything positive from this crisis, and what could that be?
The coronavirus unites people around the world, while at the same time separating them. It unites us because the virus has spread over at least 100 different countries, and people have to deal with this threat no matter if they live in Norway or in Colombia. Although the challenges posed by the virus are different depending on a country’s economic resources and the quality of the healthcare system, we all share the fear. But is fear able to unite people? Isn’t it necessarily drawing people apart, causing them to withdraw from society, exacerbating inclinations to care mainly for oneself and to perceive everyone beyond one’s inner circle as a competitor (for food, toilet paper, healthcare, and so forth)? Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell take a situation in which fear prevails as one that may lead to moral regress in the sense that it reactivates the exclusivist tendencies that humans have evolved in the “environment of evolutionary adaptation”. One of the characteristics of that environment was a high risk of infection by biological and social parasites, another severe competition for resources among scattered, weakly genetically related groups. Buchanan and Powell argue that if the environmental conditions resemble the harsh conditions of the “environment of evolutionary adaptation”, people’s exclusivist tendencies are reactivated, meaning that the “circle of moral concern” becomes narrower. “My family first!” From this it follows that the current situation requires us to take measures to counteract this development, such as strengthening institutions to facilitate peaceful, beneficial cooperation among groups. We should be aware of this mechanism (certain environmental conditions reinforcing our evolved exclusivist tendencies) and try to actively shape the environment in ways that interrupt it.
While we are explicitly asked to practice social distancing and abstention, the current situation also brings people closer together, for instance families where both parents have to stay at home with their children. Moreover, while we can observe the tendency to see everyone else as a competitor for scarce resources and to take everything one can get for oneself, there are also citizen initiatives quickly emerging to support those in need. There is the hope that this global threat leads to a process of reflection. By disrupting the life we (the better off in the Western world) have taken for granted, the coronavirus demonstrates the possibility of a totally different way of living: being at home with one’s family instead of rushing from one appointment to the next, staying in one’s own neighbourhood instead of flying to Bali, … Covid-19 brings about what the dark scenarios of climate scientists and the accusations of Greta Thunberg were unable to achieve: people behave in the most environmentally friendly way – they stay home. The effects of this global crisis on the economy will be huge. Will its effects on our attitudes, mindset and behaviour be comparably significant? Corona confronts us with the limits of human control over nature, the illusion of safety and the health risks of globalisation. In an optimistic scenario, it will initiate a process of reflection that leads to a significant change in behaviour, and, for instance, to a revaluation of nurses and other care professions. Of course, a lot depends on how long the measures aimed at minimising social contact will be effective, since they foster egoism and exclusivism.