“Personal Responsibility” is a myth.
A mantra has emerged as second waves of Covid sweep across Europe, especially here in Ireland; Personal Responsibility.
On the surface it appears as an innocent and reasonable assertion; to combat the spread of Covid we must all play our part (wash our hands, wear masks, isolate when possible, etc). It comes from a long-line of reasonable, nearly blandly inoffensive advice slapped on to everything from saving money, hygiene, fitness, relationships, fidelity, bills; it’s up to you to look after yourself mostly. Our parents, our teachers, our elders have repeated it so often that it took edgy conservatives like Jordan Peterson or Prager U to repackage it as counter-cultural self-help.
It’s a simple idea that works for many vacets of life, so why not for Covid?
The notion of personal responsibility is flawed in many respects but especially for limiting the spread of Covid because it assumes that, firstly, everyone will cooperate in the same way, and, secondly, that everyone will have the same standard and idea of personal responsibility. While we can share videos of anti-maskers freaking out in shops and shame people for not practicing social distancing, it is the second assumption that is the most dangerous.
Let’s go back to the examples I gave before of personal responsibility and take saving money as an example. While many people have a bank or credit union account, not everyone is financially literate, not everyone has advisors or accountants, not everyone can leave their savings to gain interest. Look at another example, fitness. While many people want to stay in shape, not everyone can get a gym membership, not everyone can have a personal trainer or dietician, not everyone has the time in between jobs or duties to work out. One more; bills. Not everyone can make every payment deadline, not everyone can keep up with loan interests, not everyone can pay the tax that’s added onto the service they need.
Like personal responsibility in the age of Covid, these gaps between one and other’s personal responsibilities are driven by one thing; money.
Oh, you’re just being political, you say. But really think about it. Just like it would be cruel to expect the same level of ability from a single parent working two jobs to pay for a overpriced apartment and an upper-middle class two parent family who can afford to hire this same single parent to mind their children, it’s cruel to put the onus on people who are already scared, unsure, and maybe a little paranoid, to meet the same standards as someone who can afford to work from home, afford to isolate themselves and not live in a dense area, afford to have things delivered and avoid public transport.
There are people who can afford to have their responsibilities taken care of by someone else. And there are people who can’t afford to be responsible, or else they lose their job for not coming when they don’t feel well, or else they starve if they don’t go to the shop where no one wears a mask, or else they have mental breakdowns from not seeing their family.
Why are we convinced everyone is on the same level?
You may have gathered from previous articles I am not a fan of Leo Varadkar or Fine Gael (or Fianna Fail (or Labour (or the Greens (honestly I’m just slowly turning into a bitter anarchist)))). I will argue this is not without reason. In my previous article, I talked about how Tánaiste Varadkar is an opportunist and neo-Liberalist high on the fumes of his own hashtag-hustle pathos.
Recent events haven’t gelled well with this worldview of his.
To summarise, he, along with his Fianna Fail counterpart and now Taoiseach, Micháel Martin, rode the country from a first wave that quickly escalated day on day, to a phasing-out period where the focus was on “getting back to normal”, despite the fact cases were still high, and were spiking every time we entered a new phase, ignoring all the telltale signs of a second wave (county outbreaks, outbreaks in meat processing plants, rising cases in nursing homes, flagrant disregard for guidelines and no serious penalty for those who do (including our old friends, the anti-mask ratlickers, who can be seen from his office window (that is not a joke, it’s a fact))). The piece de résistance is undoubtedly the attempted character assassination of NPHET, the advisory group who told the government they need to bring the country in a level 5 lockdown, only for them to bring it into 3, and (of the time of writing) have been told by NPHET once again to bring the country to 5 after two days in a row where cases broke the previous high of the first wave.
Sorry for the length, but trust me, I left a lot out.
We can not blame the government for the first wave and the first lockdown. It was the right thing to do. But like a broke clock that is right twice a day, wise decisions seem few for this government. And while many have been speculating for a while that second waves are natural, you can’t argue that the surge in cases can’t be blamed on the government for their zealous obsession with the economy over human lives.
It’s ironic that somehow the blame has been shifted onto us, the people of Ireland. It’s ironic that somehow we must all practice personal responsibility when our own elected officials can’t even take responsibility. Had they just slowed down, been more cautious, maybe even have acted more proactive, they could have had the best of both worlds. Now they are looking at another level 5 lockdown and a population who will want answers why this decision wasn’t taken when it was first advised (let alone why not sooner).
Yes, we can practise personal responsibility to ensure we don’t contribute to spreading the virus, which is a hell of a lot more than we can say for our own government.
In 2008, there were people who did everything right. They saved money, invested, worked hard, paid taxes, and were good people. These same people became homeless and lost everything after the global crash of that year, the effects of which many, including myself, are still feeling to this day.
2001. A man would get onto a flight heading for Newark, New Jersey. He had his passport, his boarding pass, his suitcase, and arrived a few hours early to the airport. Sadly this man, along with three-thousand others, would fall victim to nineteen hijackers on September the 11th, forever changing aviation and plunging the world into a century defining conflict with religious extremists.
To say it’s up solely to individuals and their own responsibility to themselves is to not only underplay the size of the Covid pandemic across the world but also to minimise the interconnection we have with one another.
It’s shocking how many countries that preached union and relationships have isolated themselves from each other, leaving it to scientists, doctors, activists, and volunteers to coordinate and cooperate. I am not even talking about the glaringly obvious examples like Trump, but EU countries that are not assisting their neighbours as a pragmatic stance, or China, which has a moral duty to at least aid the world in its recovery (and not just send cheap PPE on Aer Lingus planes).
We can not be in the twenty-first century, with global transport, with cross continent jobs, with a vast internet, with people living, working, loving countries they weren’t born in and act as though this is the Black Death of Feudal Europe or Yellow Fever of Revolutionary Philadelphia. We are no longer isolated from one another, nor are our choices. Yes, the choice to end Covid must start with us but it must end at the highest echelons of power, who have a duty, as representatives, to act, cooperate, manage, and collaborate with their international counterparts.
We must lead by example, but also ensure it’s mimicked.
IT IS A MYTH
To declare that it is on us as individuals to practise personal responsibility is a good start, but it is not a complete solution. We must acknowledge that we react to external forces. It is not a self-imposed victimisation to say that money is a factor in how well we act, or to say the government must take responsibility, or to say that the world must act together, sharing information, recommendations, and advancements. If anything, it the perfect example of taking responsibility an individual can do; to reason what may stop them, to hold people accountable to their duties, and to expect more from the world that we are a part of.
Though this is a virus that breeds in our closeness, the answer is not to compartmentalise the problem and act as though it’s someone else’s problem.
It’s my problem, it’s your problem, but most importantly it’s OUR problem. We can’t afford not to come together.