Constantine Sandis on Doing Nothing in the Time of Covid-19
In the wake of COVID-19, memes asserting that, for the first time in history, we could save the world by doing absolutely nothing went (ahem) viral. The notion that one can achieve a great good by doing bugger all is blindingly attractive. How cool would it be if heroism not only begins at home, but gets to stay there, putting its feet up, watching Netflix, and occasionally donning a mask to pop out for emergency pizza? Not all heroes get to wear masks or stay at home though, because not all heroes can afford masks, let alone the privilege of social-distancing or a home in which to lockdown. Many live in small cramped spaces and/or desperately relying on low incomes from manual labour, such as driving a bus, stacking shelves, or delivering food parcels to those of us staying at home doing nothing (hi!).
But what is it to do nothing? The Bhagavad Gītā teaches that every inaction [akarma] involves action [karma] and vice versa (IV: 16 & 18). Its undergirding tenet, namely that “action is better than non-action” (III:8), is a thinly-veiled attack on the Buddhist ideal of doing nothing, on the grounds that “one cannot attain freedom from the results of action by abstaining from actions” (III:4). The Gita thus seeks to subvert ontological distinctions between doing and allowing, performing and refraining, fulfilling and neglecting, etc. Indeed, in his Meditations (Book IX, § 5), Marcus Aurelius contends that “you can also commit injustice by doing nothing”. But this blurs the distinction between doing one thing by doing another as a means, and doing one thing in doing another. In certain contexts, not going out just is protecting your community, while not social distancing or wearing a mask is allowing the virus to spread. As the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe puts it, an action may have many different descriptions, and we may be ignorant of some of its most crucial ones -- both positive and negative.
The UK Government’s guidance of March 23rd says that “the single most important action we can all take in fighting coronavirus is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives”. Its slogan “stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives” and accompanying hashtag, #StayHomeSaveLives, are designed to conjure up images of an indoor army at war with an invisible enemy. Self-isolators, such as myself, are effectively being portrayed as locked-down military generals, guiding our troops on the NHS front lines with courage and fortitude, from the comfort of our sofas. In reality, we are not saving lives but protecting our own and refraining from causing deaths, or at least from being a cog in the machine that kills by promenading on sunny bank holiday weekends.
Three weeks earlier, at the March 3rd press conference for the government’s Coronavirus action plan, Boris Johnson boasted:
“I’m shaking hands continuously … I was at a hospital the other night where … I think … there were actually a few Coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands … people can obviously make up their own minds.”
Weird flex, but OK. On Johnson’s right-hand side, barely half a metre away, stood the government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whittey, and, on his left, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser. Vallance confirmed that it’s enough that we “wash our hands”. The PM added that this was the advice of Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, before concluding: “our judgement is wash … before you shake hands, obviously”. Before, but not after. The whole show was negligent at best, but more likely a deliberate, if miscalculated, attempt to facilitate the life-costing chimera of herd-immunity. The UK government has since also stopped tests and advised against the use of masks, despite scientific evidence favouring their use. In the US, Trump is similarly defying medical guidance for Americans. Perhaps my own regular hand-washing has made me self-righteous, but complacent strategies such as the above are tantamount to involuntary – and, at times, perhaps even constructive – manslaughter.
We still know so little about how COVID-19 that there will be many other true descriptions of our (in)active responses to it, of which we are currently unaware. What we do know is that, one way or another, infections don’t last for more than a few weeks. If everyone were locked down for two months, then it would be gone from the planet. Enforced lockdown that is free of Draconian measures should be approximated wherever possible, with priority for the worst off. Pace Madonna’s Sermon in the Bathtub, the virus is no great leveller, and we need to ensure the medical and economical safety of those helping us to stay alive, and those who could not live without our help.
Society is fast dividing into those who refuse to go outdoors and those who refuse to self-isolate, or even social-distance. But perhaps the biggest group will be those who want to stay at home but are forced back out by economic reasons. When anarchists are telling people to obey the government, when Agamben and Farage align on fighting “house arrest”, this virus may well make fools of us all. When it comes to writing papers or opinion columns such as this, perhaps the best thing we can do to fight COVID-19 really is nothing. Then again, we can only truly do nothing when there is nothing to be done.
Constantine Sandis is professor of philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His most recent book is Character and Causation: Hume’s Philosophy of Action.