People have been using war analogies during this COVID-19 outbreak, going so far as to passionately embrace the mantle of patriotic wartime leadership, or to invoke the Dunkirk Spirit. That phrase surfaced right after the successful May 1940 evacuation of allied troops across the English Channel, helped by myriad civilian boats and barges. In other words, a group of people in a bad situation willing to help each other out. But as good as such comparisons may sound, war is a terrible analogy.
A better analogy would be a cruise ship running into trouble, and passengers taking to the lifeboats. In this analogy, we can see the hoarders and panic-buyers as passengers who might launch a lifeboat too early, grabbing what they can for themselves, and leaving others behind.
Deplorable, yes, but worthy of our hatred? Definitely not, and especially if it blinds us to the bigger picture. Most such people are acting out of a concern for their loved ones, while a few—like senators who might seek to profit while misleading their constituents, or passengers who try to profit from selling access to lifeboats they’ve monopolized—can be despicable.
This analogy reminds us that there is a bigger picture. There is the number and availability of lifeboats, the size of the lifeboats, and character and fitness of the captain and crew. The analogy is flexible, since the crew can represent citizen or institutional efforts, be they at the local, national, or international levels. The important thing is that the outcome depends on the competence of the captain and crew, the seaworthiness of the ship and lifeboats we board, and the behavior of the passengers—ourselves—toward each other. Our responsibility to each other starts long before we take to the lifeboats, for we all play a role in the kind of ship we wind up boarding.
For example, when we got word last month that Santa Clara University was suspending face-to-face class meetings, I was in a review session with a group of undergraduate engineering students. Some of the students rolled their eyes, and one voiced frustration with these measures, believing that they might rather risk it. But they all quickly understood that these measures were not about each of us individually, but about us as a community, and that protecting the most vulnerable among us might mean sacrifices by all of us. My students were being asked to endure a hardship, and they rose to the occasion, braving a difficult and sudden adjustment to our class and exam formats on the eve of their finals.
Unfortunately, many people do not live up to the example of our students, and some behave downright shamefully. Whether it’s a captain placing more effort into covering his incompetence than saving lives, or someone simply refusing to take precautions to protect others, we may need to follow the example of thoughtful disaster planning experts and employ a more apocalyptic analogy to understand the nature of their shame.
The kind of character who would hide a zombie bite in a fictional zombie apocalypse resembles those who refuse to self-quarantine and practice social distancing in real life. They might be irresponsible individuals who imagine themselves invincible and lend no thought to the vulnerability of others, or irresponsible officials, endangering them in order to service the egos of their political leaders.
Such characters care more about their appearance, and their own short-term well-being, than they do about the well-being of others. In a war analogy, these people would simply be on “our side,” but when we imagine ourselves on a shared ship (and remember that we are on a shared planet), then their characters become much clearer.