It is not only the fragility of life that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted. It is also the fragility of the thing called “globalisation“. Borders have been sealed off. Nations have barred the entry of ships and planes. The flow of tourists and migrants is put on hold. Suddenly, the global village Canadian futurist Herbert Marshall McLuhan wrote about in the 1960s seems to have exploded and scattered into self-contained little islands.
“Every nation is selfish,” wrote the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupéry. “Every nation regards its selfishness as sacred.” Those words ring true as the coronavirus accentuates old divisions within the 27-member European Union. Speaking before the European Parliament, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rebuked some countries for their response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Said she: When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an ‘all for one’ spirit, too many initially gave an ‘only for me’ response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a ‘fair weather Union’, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.
Every nation is selfish. Every nation regards its selfishness as sacred.
~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry
To be sure, the world is not devoid of compassion and cooperation in these trying times. The small island nation of Cuba is sending medical teams around the globe to help with the coronavirus response. China and Russia have despatched doctors and medical supplies to Italy. On the personal level, the spirit of voluntarism is on the rise and people are reaching out to help others.
But self-centredness has also come to the fore. Consider celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, who was widely criticised for quickly laying off 500 restaurant staff in the face of the pandemic. Or landlords who kick out their health worker-tenants for fear of getting infected. Not less egregious are the numerous cases of racism and xenophobia spawned by the coronavirus — like the UK nurse who was racially abused by a couple on her way to her overtime shift at the hospital.
Should anyone be surprised? The whole history of civilisation has been spun around the themes of altruism versus egoism, cooperation versus division. The tension between these opposing tendencies has been illuminated by the coronavirus. But it has always been there, deep in the bowels of human nature. The words of the English poet, John Donne, may serve as a reminder to everyone as the world struggles, not only against the plague, but against the worst in humanity:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. [Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)]