(originally published on Breakthrough.Politics.Blog)
Watching the Coronavirus run it’s course, it’s hard to imagine that the public response to the pandemic will be remembered in anywhere near as positive terms as the public response to the last comparable major crisis — World War Two. During World War Two, people stood resolute in the face of violence, death, and a level of scarcity that — even during COVID-19 — is unimaginable in the modern age. Compare that to the response to the current pandemic and there are far fewer profiles in courage to give out (the exception, of course, being the dutiful work of doctors, nurses and others working in critical industries).
Eighty years ago, people calmly persevered and did whatever was deemed necessary — even if that meant running onto a battlefield knowing the likely result was being destroyed by landmines and enemy gunfire; becoming in the process, one of millions of other causalities. What’s particularly remarkable (and unimaginable in the modern age) is how millions were so willing to risk their life for their fellow citizens, with many who were too young to fight at the time pretending to be of fighting age just so they could join the war effort.
What we’ve seen from so many in the battle against Coronavirus is not just a lack of courage, but an abundance of selfishness and self-absorption. Despite seeing the high human cost of the virus in China and Italy (among other countries), residents of multiple other countries, notably the UK, have flouted official guidelines; some out of denial, some out of distrust of the Government and some out of selfishness and a refusal to make even the smallest of sacrifices.
The selfish response of those refusing to social distance and of those who are stock-buying food can be put down to, in part, the increasing self absorption of people. The technology age, in spite of all it’s positives, has given many people the impression that not just are they are centre of their own world, but also the centre of everyone else’s as well. Whenever we post online running updates of our personal lives and of our thoughts on current affairs, we are making the assumption that our every thought and action matter enough to be broadcast to the rest of the world and, every time these posts are engaged with, our suspicion of our self importance is confirmed. The entire social media apparatus is designed to feed our idea of self importance in order to get us to keep engaging with the sites; the notifications section of sites like Twitter and Instagram aren’t there to tell us the response to other people’s posts or to inform us of other people’s reality, they’re there to feed our ego; to tell us every time someone’s liked something we’ve done or commented on something we’ve said. And because, the strategy of the social media companies themselves is to feed our narcissism, the strategy of companies and ‘influencers’ on these sames sites becomes the same — it’s why Buzzfeed make so many lists with titles such as, ‘23 things anyone with *insert immutable characteristic here* can relate to’. Ultimately, the entire reality of social media is to feed our sense of self importance and narcissism and, the bigger your following, the more self important you’re going to be made to feel.
The entire social media apparatus is designed to feed our idea of self importance
How does this relate to the Coronavirus? Well, for one thing, this focus on ourselves is hindering our abilities to think about others — in other words people are unable to look beyond the personal disturbance caused by social distancing, and therefore can’t internalise (or sympathise) with the idea that they should stay home because it could save the lives of others. Moreover, the social media age has utterly exposed, and fuelled, the self-obsession of celebrities, and while people may have some sympathy for regular people struggling to come to terms with our shared, new reality, one group of people they have absolutely no sympathy for right now is the rich, powerful and famous.
When Vanessa Hudgens took to Instagram Live to declare, “Even if everybody gets [Coronavirus], like yeah, people are going to die, which is terrible… but inevitable?”, the judgement from the court of public opinion was as swift as it was brutal. On the View, Meghan McCain summed up how many felt about the actress after her comments, with McCain making an exception to her opposition to cancel culture by saying, “Now, I’ll never support anything [Hudgens] does… under any circumstances.”
Most people are bracing for impact from what’s set to be the worst recession in a generation, just eleven years after we were told that we’d already experienced that
However, soon after Hudgens made her comments, the celebrity world was about to find out that simply avoiding making potentially dangerous comments like Hudgens’ is not enough to hold off the collective anger of an increasingly anxious population. When, Gal Gadot got together her A-list friends (including the likes of Natalie Portman and Sia) to each sing a line from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, the public response was surprisingly frosty, with the video having 3.4 thousand likes compared to 9.7 thousand dislikes on Youtube (as of writing).
Then, Madonna received a similarly negative response to her now-deleted Instagram post where she referred to the Coronavirus as “the great equaliser”, while speaking from her petal filled bath.
Madonna, more so than those involved with the ‘Imagine’ video, should have anticipated the backlash to her video. Calling the pandemic “the great equaliser” can only be seen as painfully out-of-touch at a time where the rich and famous can effortlessly get tested, while the rest of us are left unable to find out whether we have the deadly virus. Contrary to Madonna’s claims, the Coronavirus is not making us more equal, it is just exposing (and, at times, exacerbating) existing inequality.
Calling the pandemic “the great equaliser” can only be seen as painfully out-of-touch at a time where the rich and famous can effortlessly get tested, while the rest of us are left unable to find out whether we have the deadly virus
Indeed, the Coronavirus has utterly exposed the privilege of the rich and powerful, as well as their — at times — shameful exploitation of such privilege. Take, for instance, the actions of Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-G.A.), who has a net worth ($500 million) nearly four times higher than that of any other member of the House and Senate.
Loeffler, along with three other Senators (two Republicans, one Democrat) sold off personal stocks before the stock market crashed due to COVID-19. After attending a private briefing about the impact of Coronavirus, Loeffler sold off millions of dollars worth of stock, while investing in Citrix — a teleworking software — whose stock market value has risen considerably in recent weeks. At the same time, she publicly downplayed the economic risks of the pandemic.
However, while the rich and powerful have been able to use their privileged position to, at best, shield themselves from the impact of COVID-19 and, at worst, game the system in their favour, most people are bracing for impact from what’s set to be the worst recession in a generation, just eleven years after we were told that we’d already experienced that.
Indeed, as Senators sold their stocks and celebrities waxed poetic about the pandemic, workers were laid off as small businesses were forced to shut up shop. At the same time, health workers in the US were forced to put their safety on the line as they dealt with a shortage of protective medical equipment, while one uninsured women was charged $35,000 for Coronavirus testing and treatment, potentially leaving her to have to foot the costly bill all by herself during a sharp economic downturn.
It’s clear, therefore, why people are showing scepticism towards their politicians and, are not performing as a captivated audience for celebrities musing the impact of the Coronavirus. As people come to terms with the second major economic crisis in the last eleven years and wonder where their next paycheck will come from, there is little sympathy for the elite concerns of the rich, famous and powerful. In regards to the political class, most people are crying out for the passage of a strong, robust stimulus package. And, in most people’s eyes, celebrities are only good for two things right now; one, using their vast wealth to slow the virus’ spread, and two, offering a terrified people a distraction from the current situation.