“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”Benjamin Franklin
What follows might be bollox, so be warned.
Me and my wife went to London the other day. It was the first day out since lockdown started. It was also the first time either of us used public transport. It was a nice day, but it would have been nicer if it weren’t for the constant dehumanizing reminders that we are all dangerous, potentially infectious, dirty bags of germs. Before boarding the train in Watford, everyone masked up like a good, responsible citizen. Everyone apart from us. My wife had kept two masks in her purse in case we were told off, but I was not going to put one on no matter what. My wife, who is asthmatic, was willing to suffer a short-term discomfort to avoid confrontation. I wasn’t. The people in Euston stared at us like they had just seen Bonnie and Clyde – that couple they recognized from the “Wanted” posters. Some eyes spelled fear, while others expressed disgust, and confusion – how are they getting away with this disobedience?
The ancient instinct
As the quote above suggests, I am not willing to sacrifice my liberties for temporary safety. I am responsible for my own safety and you are for yours. This should be where the mask debate ends. But it doesn’t so, if you’re persuaded by the government’s advice and “the science”, then by all means, wear a mask, gloves, goggles, and a top hat if you want. My problem is with the government trying to take my right to take responsibility for my own life away from me. I don’t need the state to be my parent. I can make my own informed decisions about my health and safety. I can take risks and those who don’t want to take them can, just as well, stay home and “stay safe”. This has been my stance throughout the lockdown. The belief that it is OUR job to take responsibility for ourselves and our immediate family and keep them safe from harm. It’s not up to me to keep you or your grandad healthy or alive. As harsh as this sounds, this is true, and no amount of online shaming is going to change that.
We care for our own. Countless scientific research, as well as common sense, confirms that we, as humans and as mammals, value the health of our own family members more than that of strangers. Our own children and children of our siblings are the priority because they carry our genes. And even though we don’t think about it like this, our genes want to survive by being passed on to our offspring. So, the genes make us love and care for our children and protect them from harm. We share genes with our brothers and sisters, so their kids are, by definition, successful copies of our genes. Unlike our parents, who have already contributed to the growth of our family tree. The job of the next generations is to continue that expansion. That’s why we love our children and want the best for them. Anyone who has children or is expecting one, like me, knows how important it is to keep them safe and everyone else, including our own parents, becomes less important. It’s not that we stop caring. Poor health or the death of a parent definitely does hurt, and we never fully expect it even when we have every reason to. It’s that we know that as they age, the chances of them getting seriously sick skyrocket and we are wired to accept that. It’s tough to think your mom or dad will die one day, but this day will come, and you know it. We never think in these terms about our children. Because we know the circle of life by now. “No mother should bury her son”, I heard once in a movie. We, as parents, should be the first to go and it’s up to us to make sure the natural order occurs.
This instinct is hard wired so deep inside our subconsciousness that we can’t control it. We think we can. But we can’t. In the end, there is an order in which we value human life and what we are willing to do to protect, save, or defend it. This means risking our life, health or even principles, beliefs and values we hold to save somebody’s life, depend on our relationship with the person and what danger face. Another factor also plays a role. It is the hypothetical victim or a number in the statistic VS a real person we know or can relate to. Smoking illustrates it perfectly.
The older you
Research finds that approximately seven thousand non-smoking adults die from lung cancer in The United States each year because of inhaling second-hand smoke. It is not a big number in a country of three hundred and thirty million people. Nevertheless, it’s over seven thousand people whose lives are cut short because of other people’s unhealthy lifestyle. How many smokers would be willing to quit smoking if it helped lower that number? I’d say no one would when presented with a simple statistic. How many would quit or be more mindful of others if the statistic turned into real people with names, families, dreams and plans? I’d say more people would consider quitting. What if quitting smoking meant saving someone they knew? Someone they were close to? I’d say the number of quitters would rise significantly.
It is for the same reason we don’t really think or care about starving children in Africa, but we would care more about a single African child with a name, face, and dreams even if we only met him in a documentary, charity advert or a leaflet from the same organisation. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what we do. We think it’s upsetting and unfortunate, but we aren’t willing to do anything that would cause us discomfort to help those in need.
According to the Telegraph article from 2019, six thousand non-smokers die of lung cancer in the UK each year. The article however links the deaths to pollution. How many of us, honestly, are willing to give up certain luxuries, like flying or driving to save six thousand people? My guess is this number doesn’t impress anyone even if it’s so close to home. The truth is, in my opinion, that we don’t want to give up our comfort because we convince ourselves that our effort has little to no impact on the lives of those six thousand men, women and children. It is the same with smoking. Cigarettes pose a threat to the smoker and those around him, but he is not convinced to quit. Why? I believe it’s because he doesn’t see the direct correlation between his actions and the health of his friends and family. And smoking doesn’t always lead to death of lung cancer and when it does, it takes years or decades. If cigarettes killed or caused cancer in 99% of smokers within months and not decades, then less people would smoke. Smoking however, doesn’t always lead to lung cancer and smokers often live to a very old age. In fact, cigarettes can just contribute to poor health with the help of other unhealthy habits like eating junk food and lack of exercise. So, even though there is addiction involved, many smokers just don’t see a direct threat. The damage isn’t done in a day or a month and can’t be observed in real time. One day you may or may not develop a cough and may or may not die prematurely, but the “may or may not” is not convincing enough to make a lifestyle change. This is, I believe, the reason why people start smoking even though there are no health benefits. It’s because they don’t have to deal with the consequences right now. They come later. When they are older. When they expect to be in poor health. When it almost doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is, we all make choices in the present, pursue short term pleasures and let our older selves deal with the consequences. Cigarettes, in my opinion, fall into that category. If we deliberately sabotage the health of our older selves, how can we ask others to care for the anonymous members of the risk group? Just like I stated above, as species, and as humans we prioritise the youngest among us and the fact that we are willing to destroy our bodies from within and let our older selves deal with it, shows it perfectly.
Who do we save?
Recall the scene from “Titanic” where women and children were prioritised to take the limited number of spaces on the rafts. It makes perfect sense, if we think of humans as one big organism that grows with every child and can’t afford to lose women of childbearing age and children. The same instinct, among certain social and cultural factors, sends young men to war. It’s because even a hundred years ago, when the world population was only two billion, we could afford to lose men, but not women. Once a woman is pregnant with a man, she can’t get pregnant with another man, while a man can make multiple women pregnant. Obviously, this is not what usually happens, because we are governed by many other laws of human nature, but if you think of us as mammals, and males and females, you can see how reproduction can be a big deal for us subconsciously. We are more than animals, so I am not suggesting we sacrifice the elderly because they won’t have anymore kids. No. I am saying, if we are one big organism that wants to grow then it makes sense why we don’t care how our older selves will deal with the consequences of the choices we make today. This can also explain why we may not be willing to do certain sacrifices for the “high risk” people, who are mainly the elderly, when they are presented to us as soulless and anonymous graph or statistic. I also realize that we don’t think if these categories, but I believe there is a more powerful force at work, and it promotes certain feelings and supress others to trigger a certain behaviour. It makes us feel discomfort when we experience or are about to experience something bad for our health. It makes us feel pleasure when we do things that are good for our survival or survival of our genes, like eating or sex. It makes us love our children, so we protect them and make sure they survive. In a way, this force will trick you by making you feel different things physically or mentally, to make you do what it wants you to do. Imagine picking up a pencil and piercing it through your hand. Could you do it if you wanted to or is something stopping you?
So, how does all this relate to face masks? For some people it’s just a mask. No big deal. Others, however, are clearly against it to the point where it angers and upsets them and makes them feel anxious about trying to live a normal life again. They say the new rule is invasive and the government is overstepping by taking away their freedom. They refuse to comply and prepare for war on the 24th July.
This brings me back to the previous paragraphs where I highlighted what level of discomfort we are willing to suffer for others and how it depends on our relationship with them and the level of danger they are facing. For example, if someone were drowning, we would be willing to jump in and get our clothes wet. Would we jump in if it were a frozen lake and there was a huge possibility of not making it back to the surface? What if someone were drowning when the infection rate was at its highest? Would we jump in and save the life, or would we hesitate because of the possibility of getting coronavirus and infecting our loved ones?
You must be calling me mad for even suggesting we would hesitate for the fear of the virus. We might hesitate for other reasons, including not willing to risk our own life. Nevertheless, it is a valid comparison. When facing immediate life or death situation, we are more willing to risk our life or health, sacrifice our belongings, suspend our beliefs, and suppress biases. But we wouldn’t distribute them equally. So, we would risk getting coronavirus to save a drowning child, but we wouldn’t risk drowning to save a child from getting coronavirus. Why? Because drowning is an immediate threat and the child may or may not get the coronavirus. Same applies the other way around. If we don’t jump in, he is definitely going to die, and the risk he is infected and will infect us is unknown just as how our immune system reacts, and it is just as likely for us to be carriers.
I know, I know! Nobody is drowning. Nobody has to make that decision…
The government telling me – a healthy person to wear a mask, is like telling me how many people drown each year, therefore I shouldn’t take my family to the beach or lake. The government telling me to wear a mask is like telling smokers how many non-smokers get lung cancer as a direct result of breathing their cigarette smoke and expect them to quit. In the end, I am responsible for my children at the lake, and non-smokers have a choice of waiting outside. A parent might make a good choice to never smoke around her children, but she doesn’t need to quit to contribute to lowering the statistic and save some hypothetical lives which she may or may not affect. We don’t think we are all equal. We value life according to our relationships, unconscious and conscious biases and we make sacrifices according to that hierarchy. For some of us the mandatory face covering is too much to ask to save hypothetical people who may or may not get a virus. Especially when the data about the benefits of masks is conflicting to say the least.
“You can’t convince someone out of something he convinced himself into“Jonathan Swift
We could sit here all day and argue about COVID19. You’d tell me it’s killing people. I’d tell you, so do influenza and pneumonia. You’d quote the latest number of deaths. I’d ask, “Where did the flu deaths go?”, and tell you how hospitals around the world have been exposed for quoting COVID19 whether it was the cause of death or not. (One of my colleague’s relatives died recently after a hundred years old. They never had or tested positive for coronavirus, but the hospital classed them as COVID19 death – as if they were expecting a hundred-year-old person to live another twenty years if it weren’t for the pandemic.) You’d tell me how many experts say this is serious and I’d tell you about many other experts, who don’t get interviewed by the media, who suggest otherwise. You’d tell me I wouldn’t be saying all this if someone I love died or were on the ventilator. I’d say that personal experience or emotional blackmail are not arguments. I could say the same about cancer patients who have had their operation postponed. First time moms who haven’t received the same care they would have if access to hospitals and midwife service were normal. My wife, for example, is pregnant for the first time and just noticed something concerning on her breast. It could be nothing or it could be something serious. Before getting an appointment with the doctor, she first has to describe the problem to them on the phone so they can just disregard it as nothing to worry about and nothing worthy of a doctor’s time in these “uncertain times” when everyone could be a danger to others. English is not her first language, but only she knows how she feels and the sensation of the area she that worries her. What if she gets nervous when describing it on the phone, and her description of the problem will not be taken seriously? Since when do we self-diagnose mysterious lumps on our bodies? In other circumstances she would have it looked at right away.
So, the quote above perfectly illustrates our situation. You think you have every reason to believe that you need to be in the panic mode and live in fear until told otherwise, and I believe there is no pandemic, in a sense that the virus seems to be lethal to already seriously weakened immune systems. The defence systems are down and the virus attacks. We both look at the same data but see different information. I think I am the one with the glasses on and see the subliminal messages and you think I am crazy. I am convinced the only way for you to see the truth, is to put the glasses on, but you aren’t interested. We are both certain we hold the right position.
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled“Mark Twain
The quote by Mark Twain illustrates how hard it is for people to admit they’ve been fooled (and I may be guilty of it too), even in the face of new evidence. Especially when they’ve been emotionally invested in the matter. You have spent four months trusting the government and their experts, who broke their own rules, like Neil Ferguson, the man who gave us lockdown and social distancing. You are unwilling to even think that all this has been unnecessary. Even more so, you are unwilling to let your sacrifice be all for nothing. It’s like discovering your partner cheating and lying to you after you’ve invested and sacrificed so much to be with him. The realisation that it didn’t mean anything to him is hurtful. So, you block the idea that the sacrifice you’ve made for the last five months for the greater good has been for nothing, unnecessary, unreasonable. Furthermore, you might not even be willing to accept that the government is lying to you or doesn’t know what they are doing in this crisis. Between you and me, I don’t know what’s worse, lies or incompetence. Living in denial or voluntary ignorance.
All I know is that I don’t believe the threat is real. Because of that, I don’t believe I should be required to wear a mask. I would really wear it just because you are scared, and I refuse to cover my face with your fear. Remember when we talked about what sacrifices we are willing to make for others? Well I, and many others, based on our independent research, believe it is unnecessary for us to give up our bodily autonomy and right to breathe, because someone, somewhere may or may not get sick. Even if masks worked perfectly, which they don’t, their effect can’t be witnessed in real time and it is not clear whether they have stopped the virus or if the virus has simply gone away for the Summer, as they do. We simply don’t want to let the government have the power to invade our privacy and freedoms to such extent as to mandate what to do with our faces. You, on the other hand, have come so far, haven’t you? Four months of living in fear and feeding it through your TV screen. You can’t give up now. How do you, Brits say it? In for a penny, in for a pound? Others like me refuse to join this madness and in four months wake up to a headline that says, “Research finds masks have been a waste of time”. For me and others, the evidence is not sufficient. Whether we are talking about the masks or the danger of the virus itself. So far we just have evil or incompetent government who are either executing their evil plan perfectly or are too scared to take strong initiative or unwilling to admit they were wrong to enforce lockdown in the first place. The lockdown that was enforced only because of Ferguson’s inaccurate prediction of how many would die. When he lowered his predicted number of deaths, we continued with lockdown. We continued with it even when he, himself had broken the rules and his excuse was “I thought I was immune to it because I had got it already”, which was the opposite of what the government officials had been telling us about the virus and immunity to it the whole time.
The tribes we belong to
When 9/11 happened, it brought the citizens of New York together. The crisis created a sense of belonging and meaning in the community. Both the crime rate and suicide rate dropped following the attacks. New Yorkers felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. Everyone wanted to do their part even if it seemed insignificant. The Blitz made people feel the same way. People depended on each other mentally and physically. Coming together in a time of crisis is not new to our species. We evolved in small tribes for millions of years and living in big cities, often alone and away from our families (our tribes), robs us of that feeling of belonging and contributing to a community. Crisis, according to the war journalist and author of “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger, awakens our ancient instincts that helped our ancestors, who lived in tribes, to survive. Junger describes many other instances where crisis brought strangers together and points out how all men and women become equal in the face of crisis. Why can’t we come together during this pandemic and agree on a seemingly small issue like wearing a mask? I have my own theory.
It is based mainly on the fact that, in my opinion, it is almost impossible for people to relate to, let alone, care about a death toll or death rate. An anonymous graph of daily infections and weekly deaths. A death toll of a major earthquake is more relatable as it claims thousands of lives in a single day and it doesn’t discriminate based on age, race or sex. It makes all men and women equal. Maybe that’s why it’s more relatable. If the COVID19 graph is made up mostly of older people with underlying health conditions, it’s not easy to relate to it. An earthquake, however, doesn’t take hostages. The death toll might still be anonymous, but we can see the devastation, and imagine the horror of mothers looking for their children in the ruins of their homes. The COVID19 deaths aren’t, at least to people who have been against the lockdown, that scary. The fact that people don’t care too much about an anonymous graph, is supported by how we usually react to the death of a celebrity. We mourn because we have invested so much time getting to know them, watching their movies or listening to their music. We relate to them. We know their name, their face and voice. We have seen them get married, have kids or throw tantrums on live TV. The death of a celebrity is so hard to process that we even create conspiracy theories suggesting he or she is still alive somewhere or that their mysterious suicide is just a cover up for something bigger.
Final reason why COVID19 pandemic has failed to bring us together, in my opinion, is that we have spent too much time dividing ourselves. Coronavirus is so invisible and weak that it simply cannot remind us of our ancient instincts. You, me, your sister and your friend Joe, all belong to groups. We all wear many labels. We all have unconscious biases towards members or our own groups and against those in the outgroups, even if the biases are subtle. This is an evolutionary trait related to tribalism. We (our ancestors) needed to be suspicious of strangers because they could be dangerous or carry unknown disease. Something that gets developed over millions of years, doesn’t disappear overnight just because we now have skyscrapers and smartphones and don’t live in small tribes. The unconscious bias is just a tiny legacy of our ancient ancestors and their lack of trust to strangers. Research shows that while we may not always treat others differently, different areas of our brain respond to members of our group and members of the outgroup. The groups can be anything from race, accent, to political views or even star sign or shared name. Of course, we have developed other traits alongside, like empathy, being social and many others which overrun the unconscious biases in most people. The recent decade, however, has seen the rise of identity politics which divided us into Us and Them. Feminism, Black Lives Matter, the election of Donald Trump, and Brexit divide us into categories. White, black, men, women, racist, sexist, homophobic, gay, straight, and so on. Even now, during, what’s supposed to be another Spanish Flu, we have managed to divide ourselves into black and white, BLM supporters and racists. Brexit vote and the election of Boris Johnson and his delivery of Brexit, divided the UK into Leavers and Remainers. Not only are we divided, but we also view each other as enemies. How can one relate to a death toll so diverse?
Speaking of diversity. I am an immigrant. I came to the UK fourteen years ago. That’s almost half of my life. Would I die for this country? No. Do I care about the royal family? Not really. I would help my community in the time of crisis. I have a family now. Would I stay here if the country turned into an Orwellian police state or socialist Venezuela? No, I wouldn’t fight for this country. What I am saying is, that this pandemic is too weak to convince everyone to come together. Diversity isn’t our strength. When you have a multicultural society, it is harder to come together to fight a virus what has 99.96% survival rate. Whether we like it or not, we care for our own. We respond better to real victims rather than graphs. We are willing to suffer different levels of discomfort for others and the more related we are to the (potential) victims, the more discomfort we are willing to suffer. The graph below demonstrates how we measure the sacrifice against the relationship when facing an immediate threat.
You’ll have to excuse my amateur skills at making a graph, but as you can see, we would risk our own life to save or protect our loved ones but the more unrelated we are to the people who are in danger, the less we are willing to do to help them. I’ve actually seen countless videos where a fight breaks out on the train (often between a man and a woman), and the other passengers choose not to intervene. Some even remove themselves from the area. I think there is a lot of people who would sacrifice more to save their mobile phone than another human. The sacrifice isn’t always physical. If someone doesn’t believe the masks are necessary, and believe the government is overstepping by making them mandatory and threatening them with fines for disobedience, then they will not make that sacrifice for anonymous people in a graph. People who don’t want to wear masks, whether they have or haven’t looked into their risks and benefits, are already angry with the government and the police for how they have been treating all of us for the past four months. They have been treating us like children. From how often to wash our hands and what song to sing, to what to wear on our faces. Not to mention the contact tracing system which has made a lot of people question the intentions of the government. I am not going to wear a mask and I will sooner be arrested than accept a fine for it. For people like me, being unmasked is a statement. We want to be heard. For some it is just a mask, perhaps providing safety, anonymity, comfort. For others it is infringement of our freedom. It is too much to ask and maybe, if it weren’t for Trump, Brexit, Black Lives Matter, identity politics, we would have a different response and would come together. Instead the rich of this world have just got richer during the pandemic while the poorest got poorer and this alone can create rebellion against the establishment even if it comes in a form of unmasked smiling face of a free man or woman.