A failure of common decency: Pandemic exposes our ugly side

There will be a great impulse to cover over and deny such a failure ever happened
Photo: Tim Foster
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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, I have tried to understand the pandemic in relation to ethics.

The question, in a nutshell, is what it means to act ethically in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada? I do not believe there is one straightforward answer, but I propose, for the sake of the discussion to follow, that simply put, ethical action in a pandemic is common decency.

I offer this simple axiom in order to create a vantage point from which a further question can be explored: what is the degree to which Canadians have enacted common decency in the face of the pandemic?

A novel framework

An exploration of this type needs some kind of rubric or model, some way to assess what has happened over the last year in order to draw conclusions. For such a model I look to Albert Camus’ philosophical novel The Plague. In this book, Camus explores this very question, and even in the face of an outbreak of disease, as the main theme of the book. More generally, the book can be understood as a thought experiment into the question of simple human decency.

In The Plague, Camus goes to great lengths to make clear that he is not so much interested in extravagant or magnanimous efforts. He is not talking about the heroic at all. He points out that there is something perverse about focusing on supposedly heroic figures in times of calamity like plagues or pandemics. For Camus, the most important acts are the simple acts of everyday people: “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.”

Common decency, as Camus understands it, requires that people accept the unfairness and absurdity of the situation in which they find themselves, and then choose to act in a way that takes into account the needs of those around them and of the community of which they are a part. Again, this notion is not about valiant heroism or grand acts. It involves simple things like empathy, understanding, and patience. It is simply doing what is required of decent human beings by the situation, no more and no less.

In the closing pages of the book, Camus offers something of an evaluation based on his novelistic engagement with the question of common decency: “To state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in people than to despise.”

Of course, throughout the book there are many examples of failures of common decency, but weighing separately the good and the bad and taking all things into account, on the whole Camus finds that common decency wins out.

Weighing decency

Now to our own situation and the question of common decency during the pandemic in Canada. Let us imagine a set of scales, and on one side of the balance are the decent acts and on the other are the indecent acts. Which way will the scales tip?

One thing to remember about acts of common decency is that they are very often unseen and unrecorded, whereas indecent acts are often all too visible and publicized, so care must be taken to give wide latitude for measuring what is decent. For example, decent acts like helping out a neighbour with a load of groceries or keeping up a regular phone call with someone who has no family are extremely common and happen all the time.

And overall, many millions of people in this country have done what is necessary to adjust to a new normal by altering their routines, working from home, taking on the task of educating young people — generally all the sacrifices people made and are continuing to make during the various lockdowns. This has been a trying time, and many people all across Canada have done their part in simple, often overlooked ways, even at the cost of personal hardship. That so many people are willing to make these sacrifices for the well-being of others is certainly a general vote in favour of the decency of people in Canada.

Without needing to call it heroism, all the people that are called frontline workers also contribute to the measure of common decency. This is people doing what they need to do and what they are called upon to do in their specific occupation or community role. Indeed, even people who have found themselves unemployed have a role to play, in the sense that what they are called upon to do is to just stay home and interact with as few people as possible.

Never has decency been so easy (or so difficult, as shall be seen below).

Weighing the in-between

Since common decency is not exactly something that can be measured with a ruler or under an electron microscope, there is no way to scientifically quantify it. For this reason it is necessary to give a wide range for what common decency might mean, as above in the exceedingly simple gestures that weigh in its favour.

But note that decency is not by definition about following a set of prescribed rules, such as the restrictions (or lack thereof) set out by governments throughout Canada. For example, just because the government said it was okay for people to travel around the country in the summer months does not mean that doing so was an act of common decency. It is not required of anyone to go on a road trip in the name of the common good.

Similarly, look at going out to restaurants, shopping, hosting events, and other such activities. Governments came out with regulations for all manner of things and said that it was okay to act in particular ways. But all those actions and the rules that enabled them need to be laid against the backdrop of what has actually happened with the pandemic. All those actions created the conditions, biologically, socially, and culturally, for a great deal of unnecessary suffering. There is no decency in this, but nor is it necessarily fair (since the bar is set so low) to call such actions indecent.

Still, it seems necessary to account for this in-between, as it allows for better understanding of what is actually going on the scales. Again, highlighting the in-between is useful to give a wide berth for decency and indecency. It’s not that going on road trips or going shopping is indecent, but those actions, nonetheless, are also not expressions of solidarity, and are potentially thoughtless of the needs of others and lacking in fulsome empathy.

Weighing indecency

Categorizing a particular action or attitude as indecent is something there will inevitably be some disagreement about. As I mentioned at the opening of this article, the purpose of positing the axiom that ethical action in a pandemic is common decency is to create a vantage point from which a discussion may take place. Each of us will ultimately have to decide for ourselves what counts as decent or indecent. Here are a few that have occurred to me and that I have observed over the last weeks and months.

It is indecent that so many senior citizens in care homes have died. These elderly people are very often in vulnerable situations, are isolated from their families or people who care for them, and often have other health conditions that may contribute to the precariousness of their situation. It is a national outrage that many thousands of elderly people have died in care homes, and especially even more outrageous that the underlying reasons are most often to do with ongoing lack of funding, poor pay for healthcare workers, and what amounts to a general social acceptance of the disposability of elderly people.

It is indecent that racialized communities have borne a disproportionate share of death and suffering in the pandemic in Canada. In my own city of Toronto, it has been the areas in the North York district such as the racialized and underserved Jane-Finch neighborhood that have been hit particularly hard; while relatively affluent and white areas in the Old Toronto neighborhoods have been mostly spared. Some of the main reasons for this are because people in poor or racialized neighborhoods do not have the same opportunities or the same privilege to choose to self-isolate or work from home.

It is indecent that people experiencing homelessness have not received the support or care they need to stay healthy and survive during the pandemic in Canada. In recent weeks there have been reports of overwhelmed shelters in Canadian cities — such as was reported here in Ricochet on the situation of shelters in Montreal. Programs to support people experiencing homelessness that were in place through the warmer months of the summer and fall (when they were less needed) have been discontinued. And now in the colder winter months when people need to be indoors, an outbreak at a shelter or care facility means that no one can stay there.

Looking outside our own borders, it is indecent that any kind of public discussion took place about whether Canada was at the front of the line for global access to vaccines. Currently, the Canadian government has ordered or pre-ordered more than seven vaccine doses per Canadian, while there is no clear short or medium-term plan for vaccinations for most of the African continent. A report by Amnesty International suggests that Canada is the biggest vaccine hoarder on the planet. In recent days the World Health Organization has said that vaccine hoarding is driving up prices, limiting access for poor countries, and constitutes a catastrophic moral failure.

It is indecent that business and financial interests cynically expressed concern for the mental health of Canadians as a ploy to remove restrictions on their activities. It is indecent that frontline workers are subjected to unnecessary risks in the name of the economy. It is indecent that a significant portion of the population refuses to simply wear a mask. And on and on…

It is indecent that the vast collective called “the Canadian people” stands by and does nothing as the most vulnerable among them, and the most vulnerable around the world, bear the brunt of the pandemic, suffer, and die.

How the scales tip

It may sound harsh, but with respect to the Canadian response to COVID19, I find it difficult to think of any greater moral wrong that has been so obviously committed in such a short period of time in living memory in this country. Certainly there have been individual and collective acts of decency that are worthy of admiration. But following Camus’ thought experiment, I cannot imagine any clear argument in favour of the overall decency in any of this (or I would love to hear it, anyways). If ethical action in a pandemic is common decency, then we have failed.

What this failure points to is a lack of values; or rather, a misplaced set of values. It is simply a matter of looking at where things have broken down and asking what would have needed to happen for it to be different. And in the most egregious cases of indecency, it is clear that the dominant ideological forces at work in our society value profit over lives. If the pandemic is a looking glass, it shows us a Canadian society in which economics is more important than morality; or said another way, a society in which right and wrong is determined by economics instead of ethical principles.

Beyond the unnecessary death and suffering visited upon people who were made disposable in this society, the broader impacts of this ethical failure are only now coming into view. For example, many Canadians like to think of themselves as living in caring communities with strong bonds of social solidarity. Outside our own borders, many Canadians like to see themselves as a moral and ethical compass for humanitarianism in the world.

What happens to a society when those foundational narratives and markers of collective identity are so clearly unravelled? What does it do to our relationships and basic social bonds when we perceive our own family, friends, and communities as complicit in such indecency? These are questions that Canadians are now called upon to answer. Of course, many people will want to forget about all this as quickly as possible, and there will be a great impulse to cover over and deny such a failure of common decency ever happened. And because past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, it is questionable if Canadian society has the fortitude to truly take stock of something so obscene.

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