In 1859 a naturalist who went on to become the most famous of them all published his theory of evolution.
nd though Charles Darwin takes credit for On the Origin of Species, the phrase often associated with his publication, ‘survival of the fittest’, was actually coined by a contemporary of his, Herbert Spencer.
An economist and sociologist, Herbert used the phrase to align Darwin’s studies to his own work in the field of sociology and ethics.
Over 150 years later you wonder whether Herbert’s choice of words would be subtly different.
Since the spectre of Covid-19 engulfed the world we have been bombarded with messages of unity from leaders. Drive along a motorway in Northern Ireland and the digital signs no longer give us messages of road safety. Speed warnings and seatbelt advice have been replaced by ‘We’re All In This Together’. Sit on a bus and the posters will relay the same message to the masses.
Covid-19 has thrown a stark spotlight on the divisions within society. Are those who have power, money, who control big business, really in this ‘together’ with the rest of us?
We all like a good browse around superstores like Matalan, Primark or Dunelm Mill. We missed them when they were closed. We find comfort in them now they are remaining open.
But look a little further.
On Thursday morning Dunelm announced it will be repaying over £14m claimed in furlough money to the government. Such bold and noble moves are few and far between.
But surely the point of furlough money was about survival? Dunelm has survived, even prospered. Sales jumped 36.7% to £359.1m in the three months to September 26, with strong growth in online sales, which accounted for 29.7% of all sales.
Will other nationwide companies, who have the financial foundations to stand strong through the worst hurricane weather, do likewise? Breath will not be held.
When all this is over, they will still be standing. Not so much a survival of the fittest, more a survival of the richest.
The banks will survive.
Now they are being urged to show understanding towards customers after details were given of financial support for hospitality businesses forced to close by Covid restrictions. They must show the spirit of ‘in this together’ we’ve all been told about by throwing that lifeline.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds is looking at separate schemes for providers of contact services, such as hairdressing, as well as for bigger hotels and venues.
“There will be more (help) coming and I want to assure people we are doing everything we can to stand with people at this difficult time,” First Minister Arlene Foster said.
“We recognise that they are under a lot of pressure, not least from their financial institutions, and I would appeal to the banks and the financial institutions to work with us on this as well.
“I think it’s important that they give support to businesses across Northern Ireland.”
Mrs Foster can appeal all she wants. Whether the appeal is listened to and acted upon quickly enough is another matter.
The chairmen of multi-national companies might receive smaller dividends come the year end, but they will still be able to afford their six bedroom homes in the country and holidays in the Bahamas. A few weeks in lockdown for them constitutes afternoons of relaxation, their biggest concern over what is being put on the table for dinner, not whether there will be a dinner on the table at all.
Back in May, as the first wave of Covid-19 had taken hold of the country, I went along to Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt where local company Bloc Blinds, another which will come out of this crisis with huge credit, had hastily set up a not-for-profit PPS production line.
There I met one of the new staff members. A young mother. Nadine O’Neill from Magherafelt had been working as a hairdresser until then. Her work had stopped. Now, in all likelihood, if she had returned to her normal profession, her work will stop again.
“Without this, I wouldn’t be able to pay for my house food for my son,” she told me bluntly at the time.
Was she, at that time, really in this together with the big businesses of this world? Is she now?
Love him or loathe him, Stephen Nolan has a real knack of letting raw human emotion flow. I watched BBC NI on Wednesday night as a man I have spoken to several times before sat almost broken.
Gerard Keenan, who runs Dan’s Bar on Belfast’s Springfield Road along with his wife Sinead, and has a family of six, doesn’t know what the future holds. He says he is now considering selling up, if he can. What future for him, his family and his business as he faces up to another four week closure, just three weeks after reopening?
Take his business and multiply that thousands of times across the country where those without the strong financial footing sink further into the depths, while those with wealth behind them sit tight and bide their time to assume a prime position to mop up the rewards as the rest of us survey the devastation.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said “all costs of the sector need to be covered by the government”.
“There is no fuel left in the tank,” he warned, while others have plenty.
If we truly are ‘all in this together’ then where is our modern day Robin Hood? Can the family run B&B really survive against the national hotel chain?
They say people come together in times of trouble, but Covid-19, despite all the messages of togetherness, is proving Charles Darwin right.
Belfast’s shipyard was the birthplace of the Titanic. It sank, you will remember. Most of the loss of life was among those who scraped together their last pennies to travel in steerage in search of a better life. Huddled together in desperation as the liner sank beneath the waves, they never stood a chance as the first class passengers sailed serenely off to safety.
That harrowing scenario is playing out again in economic terms and unless government comes up with a rescue package to keep the working man who has endured long hours to provide for his family afloat the field is once again being set for the few rich enough to prosper from the adversity of the rest.
“All animals are equal,” we’re told by George Orwell in his famous novel Animal Farm, studied by literature students in schools for decades, “but some animals are more equal than others.”
If Covid-19 is doing one thing, it is bringing those divisions even more sharply into focus.