As a philosopher, I am keenly interested in events that cast a light on human nature. The Covid-19 pandemic is one giant spotlight. The pandemic is bringing out the good and bad in humanity. One of the long debates in philosophy has been whether humans are essentially selfish, as Thomas Hobbes believed, or essentially sociable and good willed toward each other. The pandemic seems to be showing us, as events throughout history have, that the answer is a bit of both.
The good we see in some people’s positive attitudes: Italians singing from their balconies, Spaniards applauding medical staff as they head to work, small businesses and charities arranging food deliveries for the elderly. We can take heart that these actions are the tip of the iceberg of human good will. We will need all of that goodness to withstand not only the virus, but the bad side of human nature.
The bad we see in the fear, loathing, and self-centeredness of people and governments in response to the pandemic. Racist attacks on East-Asian people have fortunately been few, but they have happened. Right-of-center governments were slow to respond, the US president at first claiming Covid-19 was a “hoax.” The UK prime minister somehow found a scientist willing to support a largely do-nothing strategy. In the ideas of March, the message from many governments was to go to work but immediately afterwards go home and stay there. That combined with governments giving out billions to bond holders (quantitative easing) gave the impression that some governments were doing more to help rich investors than working people.
Closing borders, a favored goal of right-wing regimes, did seem an appropriate response, but not because of the boogiemen of refugees and immigrants, but the entitlement attitudes of first-worlders. We see much of that human self-centered obliviousness, such as a reported 30,000 British tourists who traveled to the French Alps 13-14 March at the height of European countries shutting down literally everything. Every one of these tourists undertook this travel despite weeks of news and warnings about the spread of Covid-19. These same Brits then had the cheek to be angry that restaurants and pubs were closed in France which had at that time over 5,000 verified cases, including at ski resorts.
Stupidity like that feeds the agendas of right-wing strongmen, whose default position is that we need to let them have more control to keep us safe. Hobbes was a proponent of surrendering freedoms to a strongman to keep us safe. Draconian limits of freedoms is a sensible policy in a pandemic, but should be temporary. The question is which governments will relax the restrictions when the Covid-19 threat has subsided and which right-wing parties will try to exploit the pandemic to advance their agenda? A second question is will enough people be alert to the threat?
The Covid-19 pandemic is highlighting our inability to sensibly quantify risk. On the one hand, Covid-19 is dismissed by some people as “just the flu,” which does kill tens of thousands every winter. The sensible precautions to avoid the seasonal flu are the same sensible precautions to avoid Covid-19, but because the flu is part of normal life, it has become invisible—just part of the landscape. Many dismiss the risk of seasonal flu and it is too easy for some people to dismiss the dangers of Covid-19. On the other hand, Covid-19, with good reason called a “novel” virus, scares people more than does seasonal flu because it is novel. Though the odds of contracting Covid-19 are small and the odds of dying from it even smaller, it is unusual so some people fear it. It’s like how people worry far more about plane crashes than car crashes, even though the risk of harm is far larger in a car than on a plane. We downplay the risk because car travel is normal, we do it several times a day. But most of us don’t fly often so the unfamiliarity heightens the fear of risk. We fear the novel more than the normal even when the risk is much higher in the normal.
Then there is the very human tendency to consider oneself immune from danger. This is bad. Perhaps this explains the British tourists barging into a hot zone—mad dogs and Englishmen? But it isn’t just the Brits who have this psychosis. In the days following closures and quarantines, some people carried on drinking and carousing in parks and outside shuttered bars. Spanish authorities had to fly drones with loudspeakers to urge people to stop gathering in crowds. “Won’t affect me,” was surely the attitude some had. I highly doubt the Covid-19 virus can be shown off by an attitude if invincibility.
We haven’t yet seen riots or other forms of violence during the pandemic. Even runs on toilet paper made by silly paranoids have been peaceful. My hope is I will not have to update this article with tales that Hobbes was correct that “man is a wolf to man.” But we are in the early days of this crisis. Perhaps love and goodwill will outweigh hate and selfishness. It remains to be seen what people, and philosophy, will learn from all of this.