Make me unselfish

It is only natural to feel overwhelmed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But we are not powerless. Small acts of altruism and of mutual aid can snowball into real, positive change.

The impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in my lifetime. But it is not unprecedented in recent human history. Neither, it would seem, is the popular reaction.

All this has happened before. All this will – in all probability – happen again. Humans don’t change. How we respond to a crisis doesn’t change. It is only natural.

A simple way of helping others

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The frenzied emptying of supermarket shelves seen in recent days and weeks has been jolting. But it springs from a natural impulse. We need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our loved ones and families, ourselves, and those around us.

All this has happened before. Earlier this month, Tom Braithwaite tweeted a fascinating thread on Bovril’s newspaper advertising during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In these ads, Bovril Ltd work to build the perception of their brand as synonymous with good health (including the claim that “Bovril repels influenza“).

The advertisement entitled “Unselfishness” is striking. Here, Bovril Ltd urge the public not to build an excessive stockpile of their product.

Regardless of how you feel about Bovril (I myself am Bovril agnostic, having never knowingly Bovril’d), this call for unselfishness is entirely applicable to today. Try substituting all uses of “Bovril” and “Bovril Ltd” with “toilet paper”/”food”/”essential supplies” (delete according to individual preference):

“There is a simple way of helping others during the present influenza epidemic. It is to refrain from buying Bovril if you have a stock in the house which will carry you on even for a month. In this way you will leave the available Bovril in the shops for those who have illness at home. Bovril Ltd, recognising that those are deprived of the body-building power of Bovril may more easily fall victims to the epidemic are doing their utmost to increase the supply. But the lack of bottles seriously hampers their efforts, and it is hope that men will soon be released for the bottle factories so that there may be, once again, Bovril for all.”

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The message of Bovril’s 1918 advertisement is echoed in the March 2020 open letter from major UK food retailers, coordinated by the British Retail Consortium (BRC):

“We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop. We understand your concerns, but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.”

A rational and appropriate response?

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Mass stockpiling should not be seen as a “panic”, argues Simon Wessely of King’s College London. In an excellent article for the FT, he contends that what we are seeing is an entirely understandable reaction to testing circumstances. Wessely says:

“What about panic buying – all those empty supermarket shelves? We have been warned to prepare ourselves for the increasingly likely chance of spending two weeks in self-imposed isolation. Stocking up on necessities is not panicking; it is a rational and appropriate response.”

It is only natural to want to safeguard the food supply. But stockpiling taken to excess can risk tipping over into selfishness. Sadly, there have been numerous recent examples.

An upsetting little instance of selfishness is recounted in this beautifully written tweet from Imam of Peace. I love his mother’s gentle and human reaction to this unpleasant event:

Altruistic behaviour, mutual aid

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This crisis can also bring out the best in us. In extraordinary times, people rise to the occasion, argues Wessely. He marvels at “how often the real first responders, bystanders suddenly involved in dramatic and dangerous incidents, run towards, not away from a dangerous incident.”

For Wessely, examples of truly selfless behaviour are legion right now:

“Altruistic behaviour is also a prominent motive for those who are self isolating now. Appeals to protect others, especially the old and the sick are far more effective in persuading people to co-operate than the coercive powers of the state.”

My wife alerted me to a beautiful example of such altruistic behaviour – the COVID-19 UK Mutual Aid groups list compiled by the Freedom Bookshop. These are self-organising groups taking action to help anyone who is vulnerable in their local communities, in any way they can. They say:

“As the global COVID-19 pandemic is upon us, a number of mutual aid groups have started forming across the country. The groups aim at providing community support to those who are more at risk from the virus: be it help with running errands or cooking.”

This list grows and grows each day. Please take a look at the list, and see if there is anything you might be able to do to help one of these groups in your area.

Dr Seema Yasmin, meanwhile, shared a link to a heartening story of temporary stockpiling with charitable intent.

Dr Yasmin continues with the wise observation that hoarding hand sanitiser helps no-one – least of all the hoarder:

“For the people stashing away gallons of hand sanitizer, you do realize that for YOU to stay safe, EVERYONE ELSE needs to clean their hands – or is your individualistic brain not understanding that?”

Make me unselfish

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The global nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic can make us feel terrified, small and powerless. It is only natural. But there is so much we can do to help overcome it. We can each of us make a major difference. Small acts of altruism and of mutual aid can snowball into real, positive change. Helping even one person through these seemingly impossible times is an excellent end in itself. The cumulative effect if each of us strives to do this can be extraordinary.

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To close, some simple and beautiful lines* from a simple and beautiful song, which describe perfectly how we should approach each day – now and always:

Let me be patient
Let me be kind
Make me unselfish without being blind

FOOTNOTES

* These words come from Lauryn Hill’s Tell Him , a “hidden” track at the end of her excellent The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album. As Genius.com confirms, a number of the lyrics to this song are biblical in origin.

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