More altruism, less covidiocy, please!

Altruism – that’s what the coronavirus crisis requires of the human race.

But we just don’t seem able to do that:

Seapoint Promenade 1 May 2020 – Day 1 of Level 4 Lockdown

Not anywhere in Cape Town:

Table View Beachfront, 1 May 2020

We can get into complicated debates about the rise of the individual in society and how this has actually been good for altruism. But I am unconvinced by their conclusions.

Modern studies indicate that altruism increases as individualism rises in society. I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing toilet paper wars (reminiscent of the bottled water wars during the drought); disregarding of regulations on the wearing of masks in public; abuse of exercising regulations – I mean, what part of ‘don’t walk on the beach’ do the ‘joggers’ who nipped over the dunes yesterday not get?!  

Then there is the bootlegging and illegal cigarette sales, and profiteering in general at a time when we should all be pulling together – well up to a distance of 1.5m apart of course.

As far as the smoking debate goes, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for Nkosazan Dlamini-Zuma’s draconian anti-smoking laws back the late 1990s. I gave up the tobacco weed over 20 years ago thanks to her, but both she and JuJu currently have problematic relationships with Adriano Mazzotti, a corrupt cigarette manufacturer, too much so to be advocating against legal tobacco sales. Follow the money: who is making a killing during times when the sale of tobacco is banned? We know Mazzotti helped the former Mrs Zuma in her unsuccessful (thank all that is holy) bid to be president of the ANC. Julius Malema lives in a house owned by Mazzotti. Make your own conclusions…

 I am of course more than happy not to have my air polluted by the foul odour of fags, (Those who knew me in my youth are crying ‘hypocrite!’ right about now, quite rightly I suppose) but I must protest smokers’ right to ruin their lungs beneath the yellowed ceilings of their own homes if they choose to. I don’t buy the argument that smoking is assisting the contagion. While it may contribute to smokers’ comorbidity, it’s not affecting non-smokers’ contracting the virus. But someone is getting rich on the clandestine market off the gasps of millions of smokers as they attempt to avoid forced cold turkey withdrawal by shopping on the shadow economy.

I don’t think the ban is to save lives. Although the fact that the body begins to recover immediately from the damage caused by smoking when you stop may make the act of giving up now a pro-humanity choice, because ex-smokers will perhaps less need of medical equipment than those still in the grip of the devil’s leaves. Such a choice will require self-sacrifice for the good of others though.

If only we could get the exercise fanatics to ‘withdraw’ from their obsessive need to practise their ‘right’ to flock to the promenades like greedy seagulls on a sandwich…

The paradox of being united in our fight against this disease means we should be distancing ourselves from each other.  We have to counter our natural desire to be with others in order for those others to live. I think it’s that denial of self that is in short supply these days and unfortunately, that’s the real measure of generosity –  not how much you give to charity, which is what many of the psychosocial studies use as a measurement of altruism.  (And let me tell you, if the empty donation-to-the-poor trolleys at Pick ‘n Pay are anything to go by, we are not doing too well on giving from our surplus either)

Real altruism requires self-sacrifice, a denial of self for the benefit of others, and a relinquishment of self-interest.

And that is what’s absent in this century generally. Take the recent drought in Cape Town: it was only when it became obvious that we might actually run out of water that Capetonians curtailed their showers and preserved water in buckets, actually driving around proudly in dirty cars. And still there were those who simply did not care and merrily wasted water and hosed down their pavements while illegally filling their pools – because their self-interest was more important than the general need to conserve! (There is also no cure for that kind of suicidal selfishness.)

Those profligate water wasters may well have engaged in philanthropic acts at the same time – giving to beggars or even buying a 5-litre bottle of water for someone who worked for them, but that doesn’t make them altruistic because they didn’t go without to execute their generosity.

The I’m-all-right-to-hell-with-you thinking is what makes taxi drivers so infuriating. Why wait in that long snaking queue down Sandown Road, like the other law-abiding citizens when you can endanger them all (and your frightened passengers) by flying hell for leather down the wrong side of the road – and then have the cheek to require someone further down to let you in, to avoid a head-on collision?! I am sure many of these transport drivers are kindly uncles in their own homes, but altruistic they are not. Their reckless driving is self-serving. No doubt this kind of thinking will prevail when our daring exercising droves end up in hospital and push in front of innocents in the queue for breathing aids.

It’s hard to stay at home. But that sacrifice is needed now to save other humans. I wished this afternoon that I could have shouted out my window ‘Selfish covidiots! Stay at home!’ at the three rotund suburban moms, no mask, shopping bag (or lycra) in sight, as they strolled past my house, flouting the no-exercise-after-9am ban. It’s that rules-don’t-apply-to-me egomania that has me grinding my teeth in fury. (Convent girls, taught in French class about Joseph Joubert’s belief that ‘la politesse est la fleur de l’humanité’ are not raised to yell ‘Hugo, bel die polisie,’like a fishwife out of the window.) But I wanted to. And they knew it when they saw me glaring at them like a nosy neighbour with a twitchy curtain. And they laughed.

There will be no laughing when they are lying alone in a hospital with a tube down their throat, but I think this kind of selfish lacks imagination too (and there’s definitely no cure for stupid!) Yet they are not just dancing with their own deaths, they are risking our lives too. Why can’t they just stay at home so someone else doesn’t have to die alone on a ventilator, if we even have enough by then.

I mean do they think they have fairy magic (ok wrong image – they were not very sylph-like); have they drunk a potion to make them immune to the virus; do they think because they can’t see it, it can’t see them, like some children’s game? Or do they just not care – not even about each other. There are well over a hundred positive cases of COVID-19 in this area according to my sister who stays on top of such stats. We are all at risk.

I know that my anecdotal evidence is hardly learned research, but I can attest to a change in new-millennium thinking. I started teaching in the middle of the state of emergency in the late eighties. When we studied war poetry then and even in the nineties when we could finally contemplate struggle poetry as a genre, there were many things that students said were ‘sweet and fitting’ to give their lives for, and many declared they would die for their country. Fast forward to the first two decades of this century and that same question, ‘Who or what would you die for?’ is met with blank stares or blunt answers like, ‘I’m not prepared to die for anyone (okay maybe my family)’ but they never say they would put their lives on the line for a cause like freedom anymore. The Why-should-I’s have it over the What-can-I-sacrifices. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for country’ carries no weight and Martin Niemöller’s ‘First they came for the Communists…’ confession falls often on deaf ears.

The lack of imagination and empathy in society can be addressed by encouraging reading or even film, and by teaching ethics and developing an ethos of generosity of spirit, but if we are to survive this and future pandemics, we need to embrace the what-I-do-today-affects-your-tomorrow kind of thinking as a matter of urgency.

As a family we recycle religiously, and what we can’t recycle we shove into coke bottles to make ecobricks (It drives me insane to see the damn things taking up space on the counter, but I understand that it is important.) We pop our vegetable waste into the compost, so that our refuse is minimal. (Thank you, Caitlin, once nicknamed Garbage Girl, for making us do that!) In that way, we are doing our bit to limit an environmental catastrophe. But… I have recently discovered that my shopping addiction is damaging the world’s resources. Can I go without my Zara shop to protect the environment?…  You see it’s more difficult when it involves our giving up something we love. I was horrified to read this article:

I’m going to have to make some changes.

Global warming and pollution have not gone away for good just because we are at home. Will we be this committed to environmental issues after COVID-19 is brought under control? Will governments throw the same amount of energy and money at environmental controls for companies so that the window of hope opened up by the reduction of toxic fumes during lockdown will be continued and further reduced?

When will the globe see nature as an emergency and respond accordingly? Don’t look to Trump’s North America for an answer:

South Africa’s government is taking global warming more seriously, in theory at least, but is thankfully working with scientists to find solutions. But we have so much poverty eradication to address and this naturally (pardon the pun) comes first.

We can only hope that governments will take a long, hard look at themselves and make the necessary sacrifices to ensure our grandchildren will have clean air and water to breathe and drink.

But first things first: can the covidiots at least wear a mask when grabbing their Macmuffins from the Uber Eats delivery person?! Otherwise it won’t matter how many pristine rain forests there are on the planet – we’ll all be dead.

Here endeth the rant.