Brendan Hoban: final Western People column of the year

Covid-19 thrives when people are selfish

Western People 29.12.2020

It was a conversation about selfishness. Grandparents and their adult children were talking about that unending topic – ‘Young people today’. The parents of teenagers were eloquently lauding the virtues of the young: their capacity for friendship; their honesty; the difficulties they faced with such determination and resilience; their sense of justice.

In a lull in the conversation, the grandmother said quietly: ’I find young people today to be very selfish.’ The sentence stood for a moment as if in a clearance and, before anyone could respond, she quoted chapter and verse to support her argument. Young people are demanding, egocentric, impatient, self-interested, self-absorbed, thoughtless. In a word, she concluded, selfish.

It was a moment of truth. But it wasn’t entirely accurate. Because, I suspect, the more difficult truth is that we are all selfish, though some of us are better at disguising it than others. Granny was right, of course. Young people are selfish, sometimes overwhelmingly obsessed with themselves but we all are, to some degree, if the truth be told.

We get away with it, of course, most of the time. But when the pressure comes on, as in experiences of great stress – as in a time of pandemic – we can revert to the great limitation of most of our lives, our unerring capacity to think first of ourselves.

Examples are legion, but let one suffice. When debate raged about the levels of control the government would impose in an effort to minimise the risk from COVID-19, there was an outbreak of unembarrassed self-interest as different groups sought to dissect the proposed regulations in an effort to further their own claims for preference. There was always a reason why one particular group could claim special treatment.

Let one example suffice here too. The four Catholic archbishops representing the bishops of Ireland effectively demanded a meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin to plead for special allowances for public Masses. And they were supported by the usual suspects.

An alternative was to announce that, in a time of pandemic sacrifice for others, a key requirement is to provide an example for others and that the Catholic Church, in keeping with this fundamental truth, would suspend all public religious gatherings that were problematic in terms of the medical and scientific evidence outlined by NPHET.

There were multiple sensible arguments to support this: those generally attending public religious services are in the older, more vulnerable category; satisfactory sanitisation control in the vastness of church buildings is difficult to sustain in the long term; gatherings around religious ceremonies (like funerals) are impossible to manage (as we know now); and, as we have seen, some priests have failed to implement the given protocols, relying instead on their own infallible assessment of the medical, scientific and religious data.

But instead of taking the higher ground of good example the Catholic Church spoke not prophetic words about obligation and generosity in support of the protection of human life but self-serving words of exemption and preference.

As I write, necessarily a week or more before these words get into print – for organizational reasons in these Christmas weeks – there is news of a new strain of the COVID virus on the rampage in the London area. It is, the Minister for Health in England has declared in the House of Commons, ‘out of control’. Medical experts are suggesting that the new strain of the virus, is 70% more lethal than the original in terms of contracting it. In Ireland, the Minister for Health has announced that flights from Great Britain to Ireland are cancelled for 48 hours and a growing consensus seems to suggest that the terms of the ban will be extended. At this point we really don’t know and can’t see the implications of this new development. (As you read this, the picture will be clearer.)

Coincidentally an article in one of today’s (Sunday, December 20) newspaper argues that those who have broken the rules – as with famously RTÉ personnel and politicians – have suffered unfairly. The basis for this argument is that the unfairness is unarguable because we’re all breaking the rules.

That, I think is something of an exaggeration because some (at least) are scrupulous in keeping within the official protocols but you can see how that impression is created. A sizeable percentage of people seem happy to ignore the recommendations and rules explained by the scientific community and laid down by the government and seem to behave as if COVID has nothing to do with them. The S-word (SELFISH) looms large in this context.

Where reality impinges, people tend to be more observant of the rules. When family members or neighbours or friends contract the virus, struggle to overcome it (or die) a new realization of the danger can seep through family and community. But in the meantime, individual rights can seem more important than social obligations. Personal freedom seems to trump family responsibilities. Visiting grandparents seems to be more important than keeping them safe (and alive).

But whatever about grandchildren being naturally upset because they cannot visit their grandparents, for adults, living adult lives, keeping the rules (and thereby keeping Granny and Granda alive) is something that needs to be explained to young children not shared with the media in order to elicit sympathy or a reversal of an important control on the virus.

For that matter, adults need to point out that much of what we take for granted – celebrating Christmas, freedom for families to meet at will, public Masses – cannot be taken for granted in a pandemic, with a virus now apparently mutating with unseen and unpredictable consequences.

It is a measure of adulthood that we are prepared to make sacrifices for the common good. We need to stop being selfish and behave as, well, adults.





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