The Affordability of Helping Others

What has the pandemic done to our sense of morality?

Hello from Singapore,

The news is bad, and it isn’t getting better. Our uncoordinated, patchwork response to the pandemic and the inequitable distribution of vaccines is turbocharging the spread of the delta variant worldwide. According to Nature magazine, 58% of the population in rich countries have received at least 1 shot of the vaccine. In low-income countries? 1.3%. It has become in vogue in certain parts of Rich Country Media to say “we need to work together, to help poor countries if we want to get out of this, otherwise more variants will come back and haunt us.” Rich countries, despite their access to vaccines, are struggling with the Delta variant: in the US, ICU admissions are the highest since March 2020, while in Japan, record numbers of patients are dying at home as hospitals, stretched to the limit, are now restricting admission to the sickest, most severe cases.

We need to help poor people because we can’t wall them off, they’ll pass their germs to us—that’s fine, no need to bother with good old fashioned altruism, morality’s been flushed out with the sewer sometime in the past eighteen months, vaccines are liquid gold, the new land grab, we’re only doing what’s best for us, how far can the limits of ‘the greater good’ stretch anyway? We protect our own, we protect who we can.

mRNA, the 21st century’s Liquid Gold (Photo: by me)

I have been thinking a lot about kindness, and what the pandemic has done to our sense of morality. People aren’t the same, I heard from a friend who recently moved back to the UK. Don’t expect kindness, she said. Something’s happened. Everyone’s changed. Another friend took up self-defence classes before moving back to the US, “I’m not expecting America to be the same place anymore,” she said.

Is kindness something we can only afford in peacetime, when we aren’t living in mortal fear of a virus ravaging us and our loved ones? If that argument were true, and vaccines greatly reduce the risk of death and severe disease, then our capacity to help others should also increase by an equal or greater proportion.

But the human capacity for selfishness seems greater than ever before. Ask the country which is authorising booster shots from September. Follow the money. Who’s making record gains from the stock market?

I am cognisant that I only have the privilege of considering these questions because I live in Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest and most highly vaccinated countries, and the virus isn’t decimating my community one loved person at a time. I write all of this with some shame, especially after receiving the following news alert this morning:

Malaysia and Indonesia may be faraway countries to you. In Singapore, on a clear day, we can see them from our shores.

We’re helping, I’m sure some Singaporeans will correct me at this point. Yes, we donated vaccines to Brunei and COVAX, sent oxygen concentrators and tonnes of medical supplies to Indonesia. We’ve barely managed to take care of ourselves, remember how long the West held up our vaccine orders, just a few months ago? And the memory of Singapore’s most recent lockdown, which ended only earlier this month, is still fresh and traumatic in many people’s minds. In a time when no one has not suffered, it seems pointless to compare who has suffered more.

Compared to some other rich countries, Singapore is doing a lot. But is this enough? What is enough? As we start to reopen, with an almost 80% vaccination rate, what benchmark do we want to measure ourselves against? When the pandemic ends—because it will, one day—do we want to be known as having survived just because we were rich and clever enough to get out alive?

The horror of the pandemic and what it’s done to us, is that for most people, that’s probably just fine.

After all, only those who survive get to tell their stories.

Even better if you’ve profited from it. (Here’s a headline for our times: “During Covid-19, most Americans Got Ahead—Especially the Rich”. I won’t link it but you can google it if you like.)

And walling yourself off from poor people, from the virus, is possible to some extent. Wealth is all about buying yourself space. Rich people can afford to social-distance. In India and Indonesia (and I’m sure, many other countries), wealthy families fired the help at the height of Delta’s spread, fearing uncontrolled spread of covid in the slums. It reminds me of tone-deaf economic commentary now prevalent in Rich Country Media: we’re hiring! The Economy is Booming! We have so many jobs available! Why is no one applying? (Uh…they died?) The wealthy have been vaccinated for months and were probably always at the front of the queue (for the ultra-wealthy, I’m told, they didn’t even need to fly to America or step outside, it just arrived at their doorstep).

Vaccines have saved millions of lives. The mRNA vaccine is not just liquid gold, it is a triumph of medicine and human innovation. But in its commercialisation and relative scarcity, it feels like we have also lost something of ourselves. How can we call this a triumph, if in the process, it has also made us lose our humanity?