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Fionola Meredith

Coronavirus is an enormous challenge to the modern world's me-first culture of entitlement

Fionola Meredith


Covid-19 means we're asked to think of others more than ourselves, but are we up to the task, asks Fionola Meredith

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An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health/AF

An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

The idea of public duty - doing the right thing by others in society, regardless of personal cost or inconvenience - has become a dead duck. We live in an age of me-first entitlement, in which duty plays next to no part.

Say what you like about traditional religion, but at least it taught the virtue of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Today, society is more self-absorbed than ever before: it's all about how I feel, what I want, the way I look, the offence you caused me.

Fewer people are volunteering for charity work and more are posting selfies on Instagram, curating an idealised version of their lives so that others will envy them.

Now, creeping into this hotbed of narcissism, comes the coronavirus. Covid-19 is the ultimate challenge to the culture of entitlement.

Why? Because it requires us to take action not only to protect ourselves, but to protect those around us: on the bus, on the train, on the plane. We are being asked to think of somebody else for a change. The question is, are we up to the task?

As far as we know, the coronavirus is unlikely to make you seriously ill unless you are elderly or suffer from pre-existing health conditions.

That means most of us, even if we catch it, are going to be okay. We may feel wretched for a few days, but we'll survive.

So, when we're advised to wash our hands for 20 seconds (which feels like a surprisingly long time when you're doing it), and cough or sneeze into a tissue rather than spray germ-laden droplets into the air around us, we're really doing it for the good of society as a whole, rather than ourselves alone.

The idea is that the mass public effort will help to contain or at least delay the progress of the coronavirus through the community, so that the vulnerable are less at risk and the NHS is not impossibly overwhelmed.

Washing your hands umpteen times a day and trying to remember not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth is tricky.

But what if you come into contact with a coronavirus case and are told to self-isolate for days on end?

Soon you may be asked to self-isolate even if you only have a minor respiratory tract infection. That's a lot more demanding than simple hand-washing.

You're supposed to stay in a room on your own with the door shut and use bathroom facilities after everyone else in the family, then clean the bathroom each time you use it.

People who are self-isolating should also not share dishes, cups, towels or bedding with others until they have been thoroughly washed.

Going through all this when you may have nothing more than a slight sniffle, or perhaps no symptoms at all, will not be pleasant. It might feel frustratingly pointless.

There's nothing except your own willpower stopping you going out to the shops, or to the pub, or to church, but it's absolutely the right thing to do.

Maybe self-isolation could even be a kind of workout for our consciences. Restricting our own freedom, for a temporary period, in the interests of the common good.

At least it would be better than watching endless re-runs of Love Island, sighing, tweeting self-pityingly, staring out the window for the hundredth time, sighing again and shouting for another cup of tea to be left outside the bedroom door.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ever the bouncy optimist, says that "if we continue to look out for one another and pull together in a united and national effort", we will make it through the coronavirus crisis.

Let's see if we are capable of resurrecting that spirit of collective endeavour, made famous 80 years ago during the Blitz, when people in bombed-out cities kept their morale up by supporting each other.

So far, the signs are not very encouraging. We're seeing panic-buying of ridiculous amounts of hand sanitiser and toilet roll as shoppers rush to prioritise their own needs.

In Australia, two women were charged after a brawl in a supermarket over loo roll. Here in the UK, bottles of hand sanitiser are being stolen from hospitals.

The likelihood is that we will all soon be asked to change our behaviour in response to the spread of Covid-19. That means doing things we don't want to do and not doing things we do want to do.

But there's no question that it's our public duty - indeed, our moral duty - to comply.

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