There has been a refreshing change in our public discourse in the past few weeks. In the wake of the devastating global pandemic gripping the whole world, and in the midst of incredible upheaval and suffering, we have collectively shifted our focus to the protection and care for the vulnerable, elderly and health impaired members of our communities in ways that have been not hitherto apparent or at the forefront of government policy.
Our political leaders have been calling on us to take personal responsibility for our actions and decisions in order to save the lives of those for whom contracting the Coronavirus would be fatal:
The more Australians work together, the more we share the sacrifice and the burden, the more we do the right thing, the more lives and livelihoods we will save.
Australians, and in actual fact people around the world, are taking up that call in a myriad of ways, from adhering to large scale restrictions imposed by government on the movement and gathering of people, to community based initiatives where people in neighbourhoods are taking responsibility for one another, reaching out to those in their local areas who are elderly, isolated or otherwise normally left to their own devices.
As commentator Charles Foster has noted, the virus is reminding us of some of our neglected constituencies:
Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.
Indeed, we are not individual, isolated ‘islands’ whose actions have no bearing on others. The very fact that we exist on this earth means that we are part of the human race and have duties and responsibilities to one another. Like it or not, we are all connected in some way or another. We are relational beings and need each other for survival. The current global crisis has brought that truth into sharp relief.
We are being compelled to move from our fixation with ourselves and our own needs, and instead to a focus on the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable. We are seeing that our choices can and do have a disproportionate on the vulnerable around us.
A claim to ‘personal rights’ or ‘personal autonomy’ is inappropriate and jarring in the current environment, when the exercise of a person’s individual rights or autonomy in the wrong way can literally mean the difference between life and death for others.
It has been encouraging to see that the opposite is happening; instead of insisting on our own rights, we are collectively consenting to extraordinary incursions on our autonomy; we are not travelling, we are not congregating, we are not getting together for parties or gatherings, we are not worshipping in places of worship or participating in team sports or even spectating at such events. In short, we are all doing what we can collectively to ensure that those in our communities who would be most impacted by the force of this virus – the vulnerable, the elderly and the health impaired – are protected and shielded from the force and impact of this deadly virus.
We can only hope that this renewed, life-giving focus and awareness of the needs of the vulnerable continues long after this devastating global crisis passes.