On February 20, buses carrying 72 people who were evacuated from Wuhan, China to Kharkiv, Ukraine were pelted with stones as they made their way to a quarantine hospital. The stone-throwing mob also set bonfires to block the buses’ passage. It was all out of fear that the evacuees, 45 of whom were fellow Ukrainians, would bring coronavirus to their community.
Meanwhile, physicians and relief workers from far-away countries journey to Wuhan and other coronavirus-afflicted parts of the world to volunteer their services. Even impoverished Cuba sent a contingent of 50 physicians, nurses and related specialists to help Italy out of its nightmare.
The contrasting actions may well revive the age-old debate over whether the human species is fundamentally selfish or altruistic. Are we driven primarily by narrow self-interests— the quest to fulfill our needs and desires— or are we wired to act in the spirit of one-for-all and all-for-one?
And then there is the related philosophical debate about whether everything that happens is ultimately for the good. Essentially more theological than empirical, it was championed by the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Yet, it was in rebuttal that Voltaire penned Candide, a short novel in which the hero was subjected to various forms of brutality — for absolutely no purpose. Voltaire seems to make the case that humans are not just selfish, but brutish.
Even now, the question of whether humans are fundamentally selfish or altruistic continues to stir students of behavioural evolution. They argue so persuasively on both sides that we could say that there is deadlock. Alas, the divergent behaviours related to the coronavirus crisis don’t seem to help to resolve the matter. Debaters can find ample evidence in both directions.
The stoning of buses in Ukraine on the basis of tenuous assumptions is certainly a strong case for the ‘selfish,’ argument. But it is not the worst. In the US, the Federal Protective Service — a division of the Department of Homeland Security — uncovered plans by White supremacists to infect law enforcement agents and minority groups with coronavirus.
According to a government document that was leaked to the press, the plan was both simple and hateful: White supremacists who got infected would smear handrails and elevator buttons at law-enforcement buildings and predominantly minority neighbourhoods.
And then there are examples of selfishness that are not nearly of such degree of depravity. Still, even the most innocuous are revealing nonetheless. The most common example is the bulk purchase and hoarding of essential household supplies. And there is no better illustration than that of Chattanooga, Tennessee brothers.
As the New York Times narrated early this month, they rented a truck and drove 1,300 miles (about 2,100 kilometers) purchasing every hand sanitiser from the shelves of every store on their way. In all, they purchased close to 2,000 bottles. And they began selling them online at exorbitant prices, even as people desperately combed stores in search of the much needed item.
However, it wasn’t long before the Tennessee brothers’ profiteering ploy unravelled. They had sold about 300 before the online retail platforms caught on to their greed and banned their products. So, now they are stuck with about 1,700 bottles of hand sanitisers.
The case of altruism
If these examples make the case for human selfishness, others point to altruism. There is, of course, no greater demonstration of altruism than to put one’s life at risk for the sake of others, as various medical volunteers are doing at the hottest spots of the coronavirus outbreak. But there are many more examples.
The most notable is widespread generosity. Around the world, star athletes and entertainers have either donated generously or spearheaded fundraisers to help purchase everything from facemasks to sanitary gloves, all of which are in short supply. Some have given to provide relief to those affected by the hardship wrought by measures to contain the virus. Hardest hit are people in the service industry, who no longer have a job because their services are no longer in demand.
In the US, basketball stars, whose season was truncated, have led the way by pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“A shout out to Kevin (Durant), Giannis (Antetokounmpo), Zion (Williamson), Blake (Griffin), Steph (Curry) and all the players, owners and organisations who are setting a good example during a challenging time,” former President Barack Obama tweeted. “A reminder that we’re a community, and that each of us has an obligation to look out for each other.”
In the UK, Manchester United star midfielder Paul Pogba spearheaded a Facebook campaign to raise £27,000 for the purpose. “At times like this we need to come together,” Pogba said. “With your help, I am hoping today to raise £27,000 to help fight this war and I will double the amount if we reach the goal.”
Even American brewers and distillers have turned altruistic. Those who specialise in providing us with products that stimulate our animal instincts are now exemplifying our humane instincts. They are using their alcohol-producing plants to produce hand sanitisers instead.
Beyond bringing the spirit of charity to the fore, the coronavirus challenge is also spurring cooperation in unlikely quarters. After much wrangling, the US Senate passed a bill to provide $2 trillion relief to the American people and business. Such bipartisanship would have been illusory without the threat of a medical and economic catastrophe.
It would have chagrined Voltaire to see on social media many other posts of the good that coronavirus has brought. Most are theological, especially the assertion that it has turned people to God.
Quite a few are intended for comic effect. US comedian Jimmy Fallon joked, for example, that self-isolation has made him and his wife realise that they “actually like each other.” Before the crisis, Fallon hosted a late-night show with a large live audience. Now, he has to broadcast from his home. So, he and his wife better like each other.
My favourite take on the matter is a cheeky video post by a Nigerian woman. Grinning from ear to ear, she intoned that with the quarter-in-place order husbands will no longer have excuses for staying out late. Oh, yes, she said that with a wink or widened eyes. (I can’t readily recall which.)
But, of course, coronavirus is a serious matter. And whatever good it brings only reminds one of Benjamin the Donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. When told that he should be thankful that God gave him a tail with which to drive away flies, he sardonically responded that he would rather have no tail and no flies.