Dani Garavelli: Outbreak of altruism along with coronavirus panic buying

There are signs that the titanic effort to save each other’s lives from Covid-19 may usher in a more sustainable future for mankind, says Dani Garavelli
The shelves of a supermarket in Edinburgh emptied of toilet rolls by anxious shoppersThe shelves of a supermarket in Edinburgh emptied of toilet rolls by anxious shoppers
The shelves of a supermarket in Edinburgh emptied of toilet rolls by anxious shoppers

It is difficult to alter human behaviour. Climate change is proof of this. For more than a decade now, those of us who are not deniers have wrung our hands as we listened to doom-laden warnings about our diminishing chances of survival. Some of us have made individual sacrifices: we’ve eaten less meat, better insulated our houses, used public transport more. But, as individuals, we live within social structures and with social expectations that shape the way we conduct ourselves. And neither the melting of our glaciers, nor the bleaching of our coral reefs nor the flooding of our towns has wrought the kind of global revolution that would avert disaster.

Climate change conferences and strikes come and go. They provoke brief flurries of governmental and corporate soul-searching; but the threat – though real – feels nebulous and there is always so much firefighting to be done.

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Which brings me to the coronavirus. As Covid-19 spreads rapidly across the globe, it is achieving what Greta Thunberg – with all her youthful verve and moral rectitude – could not: it is forcing individuals, companies and governments to look at new ways to live and work.

The threat from this disease – which is clear and present, rather than hazy and distant – has focused reluctant minds. As it has gathered momentum, it has led to scenarios that, just a few weeks ago, were inconceivable: empty planes at deserted airports, mass school and university closures, company travel bans (even between local offices) and employees urged to work from home.

Several major industry events have been cancelled, including the London Book Fair. Google and Microsoft have both swapped real-life conferences for Digital First events. “We are transforming the event into Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect, a free, global multi-day event connecting our attendees to Next ’20 content and each other through streamed keynotes, breakout sessions, interactive learning and digital ‘ask an expert’ sessions with Google teams,” a spokesman said.

Even smaller organisations, with less technical know-how, are looking at ways to increase virtual communication so they will be prepared if the situation worsens. Meanwhile, anyone with gigs, sporting events or holidays booked is psyching themselves up for disappointment.

There is much financial pain to come. Covid-19 is going to have a devastating effect on the economy. Already more than $9 trillion has been knocked off global shares. For every event that is cancelled there are losses in terms of ticket refunds, drinks and hotel accommodation.

The global travel industry is already experiencing a dramatic downturn. The industry trade organisation, Airlines for America, believes the coronavirus could wipe out between $63bn and $113bn in worldwide airline revenues this year.

It is said to have been the final blow for Flybe, which was responsible for 40 per cent of UK domestic flights before it went into administration last week, with the loss of 2,000 jobs. Eight regional airports and a further 1,400 jobs are said to be at risk as baggage handlers and other related workers feel the knock-on effects of its demise.

No-one wants to see companies collapse or people made unemployed. But it is crucial for the environment that we rethink our attitude towards flying for work and leisure; and if this crisis is what it takes for multinationals to change their ways then at least it will have one upside.

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The coronavirus is also making us reflect more deeply about both our vulnerability and our connectedness. Was there ever a time when human potential seemed so limitless, yet human existence so precarious?

The renewed awareness of our susceptibility to disease is a much-needed dent to our hubris; a reminder of our insignificance in the universe. We may be able to send neutrinos whizzing round the Large Hadron Collider, but we are still at the mercy of a biological agent too small to see with the naked eye.

Constant exhortations to wash our hands remind us that we are not invincible, but also that we bear a responsibility to one another. The coronavirus is unlikely to kill me, but it might kill you; and I have a duty to put your life before my convenience. Beyond that, it makes us question our self-reliance and reinforces the importance of community. More than 7.7 million people in the UK now live alone. To an extent they are already self-isolating­, some of them by choice, some not.

How will those who live alone cope if they are told to stay indoors? This is something journalist Audrey Gillan, who lives alone in London, raised on Twitter last week. Having recently been laid low for eight days with an unrelated illness, she was keenly aware how easy it is run out of provisions. She proposed a network of solo-dwellers all bulk cooking, so those forced to self-quarantine could call on those who weren’t for fresh supplies.

#SoloSoS is such a positive idea, it would be great to see it take off outside London and continue beyond the current crisis. The flipside of Gillan’s altruism is, of course, supermarket shelves stripped bare of bread and hand sanitizer. Thatcher’s me-first philosophy is enduring. And crises don’t bring out the best in everybody.

In a more religious age, coronavirus would have been imbued with theological significance. Plagues and pestilence were seen as an expression of Divine disapproval; retribution for man’s wickedness and a means of getting him to mend his ways. Or – for those of a more Shakespearean bent – a means by which the natural order, subverted by evil, could reassert itself.

Most of us are too secular now to perceive Covid-19 in anything other than scientific terms. The virus is one of several known to jump from animals to humans. That jump was possibly – though not definitively – made at a “wet market” in Wuhan, China.

And yet the metaphorical overtones continue to tug at the mind. Here we are, a species which has plundered the world’s resources, forced to accept that, there are, in fact, other less selfish ways in which we could live.

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Who knows how long this crisis will last. Perhaps our panic is inflated and this will be over within a matter of weeks. Or perhaps it will last all year, plunging us into another recession before we have properly recovered from the last one.

Either way, it would be good to think it might have a lasting impact. That employers might adopt more flexible practices; that sickness pay might improve; and that a period of self-isolation might encourage us to reach out to those who are constantly alone, while placing greater value on our own social interactions.

Most significantly though, it would be good to think this might mark the point at which companies and governments up their game on climate change.

“I want you to behave as if the house is on fire,” Thunberg told the World Economic Forum in Switzerland earlier this year. Now we know how much it is possible to change when the flames are licking at our heels, we have no excuse not to save future generations from the furnace.



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