COVID-19 and looking beyond ourselves

We live in a world where the only thing that matters is the ‘self’. It is an age where the concepts of ‘individualism’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’ are unchallenged. We take pride in our unfettered existence: we are at liberty to make our choices in our own world, subject to our own set of ever-malleable principles. Instant gratification is closely related to this obsession with ourselves. We are impatient to get what we want. Our attention spans are significantly shorter and we have an aneurysm every time there is some slight delay or mishap that disturbs our sacrosanct ‘grind’.

But that was all yesterday. The current COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to think of things and concepts beyond the ‘self’. In our isolation (whether by choice or whether by compulsion) we have been exposed to ideas such as the ‘national interest’, ‘community’, and ‘neighbour’; words, phrases and themes that one can continually detect in statements from politicians and officials.

For example, in his press conference on March 18th, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited the “national public interest” in keeping schools open. In response to the behaviour of hoarding, archetypal of the self-obsessed 21st century citizen, he was quite blunt: “Stop it.” In saying so, he expressed the common sentiment of disapproval of such behaviour that I suspect is shared amongst everyday Australians. It finds its root in the idea that to hoard would be to deprive the other of something that they need. Ideas beyond the ‘self’ are regaining their currency, place at the forefront of our national consciousness and prominence in the civic sphere.

We see examples of selflessness in our hospital staff working around the clock to treat the sick. We self-isolate so that we might not spread the disease to our co-workers, our colleagues and our most vulnerable. We heed the advice of officials because we have trust in our system and institutions and because we realise that in calamitous situations such as these, the ‘self’ is horribly inadequate and helpless.

The virus has highlighted just how dependent we are on each other and just how false the idea of the unfettered, supremely independent self is. If one of us is sick, that person can then infect someone else. If we don’t live our lives and consume, save and invest, then the economy tanks and others suffer. If one person panic buys, the madness quickly spreads and things descend into anarchy.

Over 2000 years ago, Cicero, the great Roman statesman, wrote that our obligations to “our country and our parents must take first place”. His outlook was one imbued with an affection for and a sense of duty to his native land and those he lived side by side with. [1] This outlook has largely been lost in our culture that conceives of the self as existing free of duties to others.

Writing much closer to our time, philosopher Sir Roger Scruton described a healthy patriotism as a “love of home and a preparedness to defend it.”[2] It is this “love of home” and a “preparedness to defend it” that I hope will be the theme that governs our discourse and conduct in the months to come as we face this pandemic together.

It is my hope that in the midst of this tumult and uncertainty, we will continue to look beyond ourselves. In doing so, we may rediscover a sense of community and belonging, forged in common hardship, that our self-obsessed society has deprived us of. Perhaps, in a Ciceronian vein, we might rediscover our natural ties to our country and a concomitant desire to work in the interests of our fellow-citizens, those who live side by side with us.

In the darkness of the Second World War, Churchill, addressing his beleaguered nation, marshalled his people: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty.” We may not be facing invasion and bombs, but let us dedicate our actions and decisions, not to our own gain, but to the wellbeing of others and the wellbeing of the community in these trying times.

Our duty, simply put, is to look beyond ourselves.

Chanum Torres is the former President of the Conservative Club


[1] Cicero, On Obligations (De Officiis) (1.57-1.58).

[2] Roger Scruton, Where We Are, 2017.


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