International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

The question of responsibility

By Katharina Wezel

31 Mar 2020 · In the debate on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, it is often forgotten: Taking responsibility and showing solidarity does not only mean taking care of one’s grandparents’ shopping and washing one’s hands carefully. We must rather ask ourselves what we can do so that we can give a voice to those people who are overheard in the turmoil of the pandemic.

It is now well-known that the main objective during the coronavirus pandemic, at least medically speaking, is to delay the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations and to prevent an overburdening of our health care systems. These days, the motto is: #flattenthecurve. This objective is important and is becoming the main driver on social media platforms: showing solidarity, taking responsibility. But what does it mean to take responsibility in times of crisis? Is it sufficient to throw a note in the neighbour’s letterbox saying that we are happy to take on their grocery shopping for the week? Should the premise only be to follow the instructions of the Robert-Koch Institute and the Federal Government, even if that means that we ourselves suffer from social isolation? Observing hygienic precautions and fulfilling the duty of solidarity to stay at home as much as possible are indicators that we are at least prepared to take responsibility. And yet, these measures are not enough to satisfy premises of care, of an ethically reflected community, and of solidarity. For as long as we only use the agitation of the coronavirus pandemic to tighten our circle of empathy ever closer – first to our family, the grandparents, and finally only to ourselves – we remain blind to everything that does not directly affect this inner circle.

From a political science perspective, it is no news that some diseases, especially those affecting the Global North, are frequently viewed as a priority for political action. The fact that at the same time as the Ebola epidemic in 2014-2016, a polio outbreak caused many deaths as well and was also declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO, hardly concerned the public at the time. Ebola was seen as a threat to the West – polio was not. One outbreak attracts media attention and financial support, the other one does not. It is therefore no surprise that the annual influenza outbreak in Germany is frequently downgraded to nothingness by those who it does not directly affect. We tend to focus on what is closest to us and there is a danger of overlooking what is happening around our closest circle. And it is precisely at this point that we all bear the greatest responsibility. We have to deal with issues that are currently not allowed space in the public debate. We must listen to those who are most likely to suffer from the virus outbreak, because it is arguably not Sam Sample, middle-aged, middle-class white male with a robust immune system.

While some people hoard chemical disinfectants and, in the worst case, steal personal protective equipment from ambulances and mobile care units, it should also be borne in mind that almost two million people in home care in Germany may therefore not be supported under adequate hygiene standards, which could turn into a struggle for their very survival. Hashtags like #coronaholiday, under which people celebrate their spontaneous ‘holiday at home’, mock people with mental health issues, for whom working from home and total isolation becomes a terrifying challenge. When we laugh at the fact that the health care system in Italy is hardly comparable to the German one, we have to think about the fact that we are putting a strain on the robustness of our health infrastructures when people still meet for barbecues in the park. Equally important would be to finally discuss the racist sentiments that carry within the frightened looks thrown at Chinese exchange students and within every pat on the European vaccination industry’s back, because many believe that we are superior to other societies not only as individuals, but also structurally speaking. Now would be a particularly good time to listen to the voices that bounce off the borders of the European Union, because we are distracted elsewhere. Forgotten are the refugees on Lesvos and at the gates of Malta. Forgotten are the right-wing populist activities in Thuringia and the right-wing terrorist attacks in Hanau. Instead, national, almost nationalist crisis management is prioritised.

What a pandemic like the coronavirus pandemic brings to light are the blind spots in our social coexistence, lopsided notions of responsibility and, in some cases, a lack of humanity in fear of being overlooked. Crises like these hold up a mirror to society that could hardly be more ruthless. What should therefore be our goal, apart from friendly neighbourliness and conscientious hand washing, is the question of how to broaden one’s horizon.

Times of crisis are also times in which we have to consciously deal with questions of responsibility and proportionality, without sticking with ourselves and the people dear to us only. We have a responsibility to train the ‘empathy muscle’ and to consider which of our actions harm or help others. We also have a responsibility to question our own perspective. We must clarify which voices are amplified in the loud chatter on the coronavirus pandemic. This version of taking responsibility is challenging, because it requires us to act locally, while still thinking globally. Washing hands, maintaining physical distance, and yet being there for each other is important. However, at the same time, our goal must be to broaden our horizons, to take seriously the needs and fears that are not directly relatable to us and to act accordingly, even if this means making sacrifices. That would be solidarity in times of the coronavirus outbreak.