We are publishing submissions about the COVID-19 crisis from readers daily on NewPhilosopher.com in the hope that it can help us all make sense of what is happening, and as a historical record of how it made us feel. Here are your thoughts, from around the world.
By Alkis Gounaris and Konstantinos Gravas
Today, all of us together and each of us individually, we are called upon to manage an unusual situation, a pandemic, which is currently at an early stage and the way it may evolve remains unknown. It is a global crisis that already affects every aspect of our lives, our daily routines, our relationships with other people, our freedom, our jobs. How long it will last and how much it will affect everything we have taken for granted is uncertain. The only thing certain is that hundreds of researchers and thousands of other people around the world are working hard, doing their best to get us out of this situation as quickly and with as few losses as possible.
This does not mean, however, that the rest of us should remain inactive and wait for other people to save us. Each of us, with his or her attitude, decisions and actions, can contribute more than one thinks to managing and resolving the crisis and can finally assume one's share of the responsibility. In a crisis, the first thing we should think about is what is at stake: Who and what is at stake. The second thing is what one can and should do, to contribute to the best possible outcome. This implies a series of responsibilities and obligations.
The first thing, what is at stake in the present crisis, is what we generally and vaguely call "public health". In fact, what we mean is that our own health, as well as the health of our fellow humans, our families, parents, grandparents, loved ones, neighbors, and of people trying to save other people is at risk. The fact that some of us are less or more at risk than others, does not reflect upon our responsibility towards the resolution of the crisis. Our responsibility, as we will see below, is real and complex, for it has to do with the large network of relationships in which we live and make our decisions.
Furthermore, the risks involved in a situation are independent of what we think, believe or how we feel about it. And they are independent of fear: How little or how much we fear something, doesn't make it less or more dangerous respectively. Fear or the absence of fear is a state of mind that does not affect the actual facts and risks. A danger either exists or does not exist, whether we are afraid of it or not. How we feel, whether we are optimistic or pessimistic regarding a situation, does not change the seriousness of the situation itself. What does change the situation itself to a greater or lesser extent, is our actions.
This second thing, our actions, as well as the way in which we are led to them -on what grounds we decide to act a certain way- is what we will focus on and analyze in more detail. Why are we concerned about what someone does or doesn't do? Why is our action or inaction important? Because for better or for worse, what characterizes us, what ultimately makes us who we are, is not what we believe, what we want or how we feel, but what we do. It is our actions that define us. The responsibility for our actions and choices is the weight we carry with us for the rest of our lives. In managing a crisis like the current one, our actions have an impact on a network of relationships that includes us, our close family, our companions and friends, our professional circle, the local community and the state itself. Our responsibility to all of them means obligations, duties and ultimately particular decisions, actions and behavior.
Responsibility towards ourselves implies our obligation to stay healthy and to remain free. Even if we belong to an age group that has a practically very low mortality rate, it is wrong to expose ourselves to danger, as we do not have the slightest idea about the possible future consequences of the disease. Our body has zero virus antibodies and collateral, even permanent damage, is quite possible. In practice this means that we need to set boundaries ourselves, as well as a strict set of habits, to minimize the chance of being infected. That is why it is important to be informed and trust what the experts recommend and not what we happen to hear or read from unreliable sources. In such circumstances, we must behave as if we were carriers of the virus, even if we are not.
In this way, the concept of autonomy takes its true meaning. Someone autonomous sets rules and limits on his / her own actions and behavior. The concept of autonomy and self-restraint -a restraint that is not imposed by someone else or an institution- does not conflict with personal freedom. On the contrary: Whoever chooses to restrict oneself is the only one free in the event of such a crisis, because if he or she does not set the rules, some external factor will compel him / her to limit himself or herself and this may even happen with the use of force. Our self-restraint is an act of responsibility both towards ourselves and our fellow man. Where personal responsibility is absent, a third factor, the state in this case, is obliged to enforce this conduct.
For example, when schools were closed in several European countries, many teenagers continued to gather in coffeehouses or elsewhere, until their immediate closure by the state. The lack of self-restraint leads (even with regrettable delay, as in the case of UK) to the imposition of measures of deprivation of liberty. So if we wish to be healthy and free at the same time, we must act with a sense of personal responsibility and limit ourselves, by our own decision and good judgment. Our exposure to risk essentially jeopardizes our immediate circles as well.
Responsibility towards our close family, companions, friends and colleagues entails our commitment to safeguarding their health as well as their emotional and mental balance. By remaining healthy we help keep them healthy as well. Our responsibility towards the members of these circles is great, considering loved ones of old age and high mortality risk. Unintentionally and due to poorly weighed behavior, we could actually become the cause of their illness and possible death. Of course, the consequence of such a development would leave a scar in the life of any of us forever. But our obligation to safeguard the health of those in our intimate circle is not limited to not transmitting the virus to them. Taking care of their vigilance as well as their equanimity, providing them with accurate and complete information, ensuring they follow strict hygiene rules etc. is an equally important duty. Also, in the event that any of them do become ill, we must make every effort to provide them with psychological support and practical help, without putting ourselves at risk.
Responsibility towards the local community, our neighbors, local stores' staff, doctors, etc. is of the utmost importance as well. As expected, the disease spreads in local population groups from an initial patient. Since some of us can be carriers of the virus without showing any symptoms, compliance with all safety rules when contacting our fellow human beings is mandatory. Even if none of us are sick, adherence to safety rules helps to standardize a behavior that, in addition to its psychological impact, becomes exemplary and highlights divergent behavior in social relations. The most likely way for a healthy local community to get infected is when a single person, either due to ignorance, to arrogance, or to reduced critical thinking, deviates from the rule and becomes the cause of the spread of the virus.
It is also possible that someone with the intention of helping a patient, acting with disproportionate zeal, impulsively or carelessly, endangers himself and other members of the local community. These cases are related to the so-called "unilateralist’s curse". These are individual acts of persons who do not comply with the general rules and ultimately lead to a chain reaction with catastrophic effects. The only line of defense against this eventuality is a strict adherence to the "principle of conformity" which in the present situation is nothing more than voluntary home confinement and a strict protocol when it comes to public contacts and managing suspected or confirmed cases.
But our responsibility towards the local community does not stop there. Principles such as solidarity and reciprocity are tested in such situations in practice. Shopping for medicines or providing other essential items for an elderly neighboring couple to avoid putting them at risk, for example, are simple acts that put big ideas that usually remain in the realm of rhetoric into action.
Responsibility towards the state, various institutions, the health system, the economy, is difficult to understand, especially for those of us who grew up in a state from which we have always had demands, without recognizing our own obligations -those of us who grew up with the illusion and the logical fallacy that on the one hand is the State and on the other We, without realizing that we are a structural part of this network we call "state".
In this case, besides obviously following the instructions, it is important to understand that the representatives we have chosen act in the best way they can see fit in order to achieve the best possible result. Unfortunately, there are no solutions without a price to be paid. And that means that we are very likely to have to deal with unpleasant consequences affecting our personal, professional and financial lives, our commutes, our healthcare. But by facilitating the operation of the mechanism, by facilitating the state to achieve its goals, we make the lives of our fellow humans easier, and in the end we are contributing to the best possible outcome for us, our friends, and our families.
Ultimately, our most important asset, our strongest weapon and the antidote to any virus or pandemic, is the human ability to think and act logically. This invincible advantage of our species, drives us to behave responsibly, calmly and consistently, and enables us to effectively make the best of our vast emotional wealth. So every time we get stuck in an uncomfortable situation and various thoughts spring out from our heads, we have to ask ourselves what will help the situation and what will not. We must be careful and tempered, not only in our actions but in our judgments as well. Misinformation, panic, easy and irresponsible blaming, petty politics, excessive optimism, unscientific methods and snake oils, conspiracy theories and denial, will not help the situation -on the contrary, they will increase the danger for ourselves and for our loved ones.
It is certain that this crisis, like all similar crises in the history of mankind, will soon be overcome and life will return to its normal pace. The important thing is to overcome it in the least painful way for all of us. And let us always bear in mind that every crisis is an opportunity. An opportunity to think, to get to know and evaluate ourselves and those around us better. An opportunity to mature, to grow into adulthood, to make a practical contribution, to move from theory to practice, to care for, respect and trust fellow humans, science and institutions, and to understand how fragile, vulnerable and valuable life is.
*Alkis Gounaris is a Doctor of Philosophy, a research fellow and adjunct lecturer in the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA).
**Konstantinos Gravas holds a PhD from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA) and is an international markets' analyst.