COVID-19-inspired Western Altruism Ignores the World’s Unpeople

Following the full global onslaught of the coronavirus, the word ‘love’ has been thrown around with unsurpassed enthusiasm. So moved have people become by the heroics of medical staff that pot-banging and expressions of deep gratitude and love are now commonplace. For the majority of citizens in lockdown, it seems (according to a new breed of media sophists) that declarations of love express something about our current plight and common humanity in the face of an ‘invisible enemy’. 

The political class—not usually given to open expressions of affection—has also embraced this new climate of tenderness. Take UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who, having narrowly escaped death, lauded the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who cared for him while in intensive care. ‘It is thanks to that courage, that devotion, that duty and that love that our NHS has been unbeatable’, he said. Johnson declared that the coronavirus would be defeated, ‘because our NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love’.

The level of hypocrisy here is astonishing, particularly since Johnson’s own Conservative government, like its New Labour predecessors, has for many years been hell-bent on privatising large parts of the NHS—a point rammed home in journalist John Pilger’s withering documentary The Dirty War on the National Health Service.

Sentiments similar to Johnson’s have found their way into Australian political discourse, with government ministers and opposition spokespersons professing their unwavering admiration for the selflessness displayed by public-health workers. Bloated with national pride, ministers have also pleaded for citizens to look out for each other, to keep an eye on elderly and frail neighbours, and to reconnect with friends and family—all at an acceptable distance, of course.

Over a billion dollars has been allocated to assist organisations to cope with the likely explosion in mental-health problems. Interestingly, the long-sought-after funding for such services—for those on Newstart, and the lonely, isolated and homeless prior to this crisis—has suddenly been made available.

We’re being told repeatedly that these are ‘unprecedented circumstances’ requiring ‘exceptional measures’ to ‘get us to the other side of this crisis’.  The inference is that once the crisis is over then new, less palatable measures will be required to restore economic order. Quite what form these measures will take is difficult to discern, but there’s every likelihood that the level of pain and suffering required will be considerable. We have yet to hear the word ‘austerity’ enter public discourse, but we will.

A hint of what is to come is found in Scott Morrison’s recent warning that election promises may have to be broken and that deregulation, tax cuts for big business and ‘reform’ to industrial relations may be necessary. Naomi Klein has recently pointed out that such announcements are opening gambits to another round of shock therapy—including massive cuts to public expenditure—of the sort that usually accompanies periods of ‘disaster capitalism’.

For now, however, love abounds. It’s exhibited in our new willingness to emote, to share, to think of others. It’s there also in new online fora such as #Viral Kindness and #bekind and in numerous acts of random kindness. The communal love potion has warmed our hearts and given us a glimpse of how life could be on the other side of the pandemic. Some have even spoken of the possibility of a new era of human connectedness, anti-materialism, and a collective realisation of the vital importance of kindness and compassion in our lives.

Clearly, the coronavirus has unleashed a tide of high emotion that has tapped into some of our most cherished, yet so often repressed, altruistic values—at least, that is the narrative being aired in some quarters.

There are countervailing, less alluring stories, of course, such as those of errant individuals who knowingly flout social-distancing rules, or hoard groceries, or spit in the faces of medical staff, or  prey on the vulnerable, or engage in online scams. Dobbing in has become something of a pastime, while increasing incidences of domestic violence and growing social despair among the marginalised reveals the many downsides of lockdown.

Last but not least is the implementation of draconian regulatory measures that have granted extraordinary powers to police services in order to enforce social distancing. Over-zealousness on the part of the police and incursions into many civil liberties have been widely reported.

While the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given rise to new sensibilities, why has the love train arrived so spectacularly at its current destination? It’s tempting to ascribe this to the obvious psychological causes: fear of the unknown, the looming presence of the Grim Reaper, our struggles with mortality and so on. Perhaps social distancing has reminded us of how much direct human interaction matters, and how our estrangement from nature has impoverished our lives. Maybe love glow is our port in a storm, the existential safe haven to which we cling when we feel at the mercy of nightmarish foes.

Many of us have sought relief from the terrors of COVID-19 by connecting via Zoom, Skype and other screen-based platforms, even though these virtual dalliances are a far cry from the real thing. In some ways, our current overreliance on the digital technologies serves, as Hugh Mackay points out, to promote the illusion of hyper-connectivity while at the same time keeping us apart—social distancing was in play long before the onset of the pandemic.

And yet, if at some spiritual level we are feeling closer to others, the question arises as to where our sense of common humanity resides in more normal times. The rapid spread of the coronavirus has shocked us to our core. It’s arrived on our very doorstep and has impacted most nations on Earth. We have felt utterly at its mercy. It has proven unforgiving. It is, despite the reassurances of scientists and medical experts, a reminder of our vulnerability, an echo of the pre-modern, the medieval. In the comfort of common experience—arguably another illusion—we may have forgotten about the suffering that routinely plagues the world and the very different reactions that this evokes.

It’s a forgetfulness present in the current crisis as we focus on the terrible tragedies unfolding in Western countries, especially the United States. These places are not the usual sites of such carnage—not on this epic scale. The gruesome terrors of the Ebola epidemic occurred mostly in distant African nations, not in the insulated West.

In a recent social-media post, Pilger reminds us of the mundane nature of violence and cruelty around the world, and how the West invariably turns a blind eye to their occurrence, especially in poorer nations. He writes: 

A pandemic has been declared, but not for the 24,600 who die every day from unnecessary starvation, and not for 3,000 children who die every day from preventable malaria, and not for the 10,000 people who die every day because they are denied publicly-funded healthcare, and not for the hundreds of Venezuelans and Iranians who die every day because America’s blockade denies them life-saving medicines, and not for the hundreds of mostly children bombed or starved to death every day in Yemen, in a war supplied and kept going, profitably, by America and Britain. Before you panic, consider them.

But why consider them at all? Surely the coronavirus pandemic is something new? After all, it’s impacting the entire globe and, according to a study by researchers at Imperial College London, if left unchecked it could have wiped out 40 million people. The fact that the pandemic has impacted Western countries so significantly gives us a clue as to why it has been considered such an ‘unprecedented’ crisis. We’re not used to reported death on this scale, especially from such a seemingly simple source as a virus (it has long been known that a pandemic was bound to happen).

Also, as philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in The Guardian, Western attitudes to death have altered radically from those of pre-modern times. Death is now seen increasingly as a technical problem that, through science, may be delayed or eradicated altogether, an outcome pursued in the Google-sponsored Galileo Project. Harari maintains that most contemporary political ideologies have little room for speculation on mortality, with many denying the afterlife or the possibility of reincarnation.

Seemingly, we have placed our faith in doctors and scientists rather than priests and bishops. And yet, this existential luxury—the pursuit of immortality—is something not shared by the world’s poor, even in rich countries such as the United States where premature-death rates among low socio-economic groups are on the rise. Harari seems to have forgotten that among those in the global South—those who are apparently seen as unpeople—early preventable death has been commonplace for centuries, and remains so. 

Mass suffering has always been unevenly distributed both within and between nation states. This applies to the current crisis. The fact that African Americans and Hispanics in the United States are dying at such high rates should alert us to this sombre fact. In most places where there is poverty, overcrowding and inadequate health services the likelihood of death from the coronavirus increases.  Put simply, poverty kills.

But as we trawl through the daily league tables of death on Worldometer and other sites, the full extent of human suffering is difficult to fathom. We’re perhaps more startled by the numbers themselves, especially those in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and France: centres of high finance and maldistributed wealth. We’re shocked by these figures, and bewildered and fearful for our own lives here, in relatively safe, wealthy Australia.

But the sense of panic and dread that greets these death tolls have no equivalent when it comes to the carnage that routinely occurs in the global South. There are no league tables, no cries of anguish in the mainstream media, no pot-banging, and few proclamations of love. The sick and dead barely get a mention other than in occasional World Vision or Save the Children funding appeals. It’s worth recalling too that Australia has made massive cuts to foreign aid to some of the world’s most impoverished countries, which has contributed to even more deaths.

And, lest we forget, we have also participated in what celebrated historian, Henry Reynolds, describes as ‘unnecessary wars‘ in distant lands, resulting in considerable death and destruction. But there’s still no pot- banging or clapping to be heard. Instead there is deathly silence—the silence that has always greeted the suffering of the world’s unpeople, the wretched of the Earth. 

Back in the West, a ‘debate’ is under way as to how to return to situation normal: high productivity, economic growth, super-profits. Disaster-capitalism policies are already on the public agenda, with talk of radical deregulation, tax cuts for big business, and industrial-relations ‘reforms’. Cuts to public services will follow under the pretext of ‘unprecedented times’. The love we have been experiencing will likely not extend beyond the immediate post-lockdown phase. Every policy measure will be guided by the imperative of ‘kick-starting’ the economy.

Meanwhile, back in the poor zones of the world, rates of avoidable mortality—excess mortality, excess death, premature death, untimely death, death that should not have happened—will occur at even higher levels.  These can be estimated from UN Population Division demographic data in terms of the difference between the actual deaths in a given country and the comparable deaths expected for a peaceful, decently run society with similar demographics.

This is inseparable from massive inequality, for the deadly reality of poverty is that 15 million people die avoidably each year from deprivation in the global South on Spaceship Earth with One Percenters in charge of the flight deck. Thomas Piketty in his  Capital in the Twenty-First Century details the immense growth in global and intra-national wealth inequality, and argues that inequality is bad for economics (the poor cannot afford to buy the goods and services they produce) and bad for democracy (Big Money perverts public perception of reality and hence buys votes). Collective US billionaire wealth has increased over tenfold since 1990, and Oxfam has recently stated that ‘The wealthiest 1 per cent of people in the world have more than double the wealth of 6.9 billion people’. Furthermore, during the COVID-19 crisis, members of the ultra-wealthy elite have seen their net worth surge by a shocking $282 billion in just twenty-three days, at the same time as millions have lost their jobs and economies everywhere have contracted sharply.  The Oxfam report also estimates ‘that tax dodging by multinational companies costs the world’s poorest countries at least USD $100 billion every year’, thus showing how megaprofits and chronic inequality and poverty are intimately linked.

It seems that Western love and altruism in this Year of COVID-19 are generally confined to certain population cohorts in the global North. They are also notably lacking when we consider another ongoing catastrophe that is befalling the world’s poor: the intensifying climate emergency. The BBC has reported UNHCR estimates that of the 28 million new internal displacements of people in 2018, over 16 million were due to extreme weather events, as compared to slightly over 1 million because of geophysical disasters (earthquakes, for example), and just under 11 million due to conflict. More damage to infrastructure, loss of lands, and interruptions to food and water supplies will mean more avoidable deaths from deprivation in the future.

Again, no pot-banging or clapping for these unpeople.

Each year in the global South millions die from preventable causes, while 500,000 are predicted to die annually worldwide from COVID-19. The world has responded to the threat of the pandemic with a drastic  economic lockdown and other preventative measures that will cost an estimated $4500 billion  annually (mostly spent in richer nations), whereas each year a comparatively modest $250 billion is spent on trying to prevent starvation in ‘developing countries’,  along with $167 billion on alleviating deprivation, $165 billion to reduce the mortality rate in children aged under five, and a mere $3.6 billion to reduce malaria deaths. Clearly, richer, more powerful nations are vastly more altruistic towards COVID-19 sufferers than they are towards people threatened with premature death from preventable causes in poorer parts of the world.

The plight of the world’s poor is set, however, to get a whole lot worse. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people—mainly in the global South—die from air pollution each year, the main contributors to that pollution being fossil fuels. But rather than trying to prevent this carnage the world’s carbon economy is blindly committed to burning coal and other carbon fuels that will increase air pollution and hence air-pollution deaths. A dollar value can be put on this deadly investment, because UK and US scholars have independently determined a damage-related carbon price of $200 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. With annual global greenhouse-gas emissions estimated at over 63 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent, rich Western nations disproportionately help run up a global  carbon debt of $12,800 billion each year, a debt that will inescapably have to be paid by future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic, while immensely damaging to human life and economies, has in many ways merely amplified the deafening silence that accompanies the suffering of the 5 billion people in the global South. It’s a silence that reverberates through the history of colonisation, as rich and powerful nations cast aside troubling thoughts about distant others in favour of economic growth and self-enrichment.  Perhaps the global tragedy presented by the coronavirus pandemic can open a window to new ways of being.  

As celebrated Indian writer and humanitarian activist Arundhati Roy recently commented:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Perhaps our collective desire to see a different world may prevent post-COVID-19 austerity and the further enrichment of the already wealthy. It may to some extent offset further destruction of the biosphere.  A Green New Deal offers a different path forward, one that recognises the destructive actions of the One Percenters and the pain and suffering of the world’s unpeople. A return to situation normal, to business more or less as usual, to mundane cruelty and indifference will only prolong the suffering of millions around the world.

We can’t let that happen.

About the authors

Gideon Polya

Dr Gideon Polya is a biochemist and taught science students at La Trobe University over 4 decades. His research was largely concerned with signal transduction in plants. He is the author of numerous scientific papers and a huge biochemical pharmacology text “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds”. As a humanitarian concerned with reportage of avoidable mortality from deprivation and war, he has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” and “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History”.

More articles by Gideon Polya

Richard Hil

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Adjunct Professor at Southern Cross University and Convenor of the Ngara Institute. Richard is the author of numerous books, the latest being The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (with Ross Caputi and Donna Mulhearn).

More articles by Richard Hil

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Impressively comprehensive analysis which identifies the panacea like qualities of love plus figures showing the scourge of inequalities on the world’s unpeople, who are especially vulnerable to pandemics such as Covid-19. As someone with less scholarly stamina than Richard & Gideon, I would have preferred two articles, the ethical, spiritual conundrums about death reserved for separate attention. Or have I missed their point that death is linked to lives and to life ?

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