Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?

We in the West have been caught unaware and unprepared for a disaster in the making. Think The Poseidon AdventureTowering Inferno, and Jaws all rolled into one, despite the obvious warnings about coronavirus from Hubei Province, China, since the start of 2020. The next few weeks, months, even years will show how Christian and enlightened our civilisation is. All the usual rules apply, stretched to the max, as the number of COVID-19 cases double like a runaway shampoo commercial, where I infect 2 friends who infect 2 friends and so on and so on.

The brother’s keeper dilemma comes from the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, after Cain murdered his brother yet when asked by God claimed no knowledge of his whereabouts. The first child of man was a murderer as if infecting permanent sin in all who followed. Today, one needn’t murder to imbue the same shame, just act with profound disregard for others, even those who live within our own communities. Odd given the rules of Christian charity so many purport to live by.

One presumes being civically responsible means no hoarding toilet paper, pasta, or hand sanitizer, everyone queuing in turn (6 feet apart), and coughing into the crook of one’s elbow. Not that there is anything illegal about “me-first” strategies, enshrined in an armed libertarian twist to life, liberty, and the pursuit of furniture. The Bible-and-Gun version is alive and well in the USA, the wealthiest and most individualistic country on the planet, one that values personal salvation and gated security above all.

We could certainly start by applying the “no hoarding” policy to Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and the more than 2,000-strong billionaire’s club, who have amassed trillions of dollars in personal wealth. Bezos has hoarded enough by himself to cover the $1,000 average-Joe bailout floated by the DC moneymen, which aims to put a couple of week’s wages into the hands of 100 million impecunious American workers, with billions left over. The latest wealth numbers calculated that 3 people now equal half the global population, up (or is it down?) from 8, 62, and 80 in previous years. Can we already crown a winner and start the game over?

Another well-known Bible passage, found in each of the synoptic gospels, tells us how hard it is to get into heaven with so much money. But then the boldest of Bible-thumping billionaires can tell you that if they dip their long-necked camels under the needle-shaped gate into Jerusalem, a rich man can get in just the same as any crawling beggar. Not so difficult with twenty-first-century tax havens, sheltered savings, and stock buybacks. Their brass-plated pews come with puffy cushions, air conditioning, and business-class sleeping quarters.

Just imagine if Mike Bloomberg (Forbes 500 number 9 at $56 billion) had spent a billion dollars on N95 masks and ventilators instead of a historically bad presidential bid, he might have won enough votes to win both the nomination and the White House plum, cementing real empathizer-in-chief credentials. How does the joke go – What do you call 500 billionaires in Hell? – a good start.

No points for Fiddler Don, who stated that “during the month of April, the heat generally speaking kills this kind of virus” (February 9). A month later he had “a hunch” the coronavirus was “very mild” and that people would get better by “sitting around and even going to work” (March 4). A hunch? Is that the latest anti-intellectual, man-of-the-people term for no bloody clue? His March 9 tweet claimed “The risk is low to the average American.”

Having stolen back the White House podium from his limelight-hogging VP in a now daily car-crash briefing, Trump even stated “It is an exciting time for medicine” (March 19). One expected an Eddie Murphy Trading Places“Bacon, lettuce, and tomato” fourth-wall break to follow. Has Trump ever been on the frontline of anything? Healthcare workers are pulling double shifts and wondering if they or their families will survive. Was 9-11 an exciting time for fire fighting?

In the same briefing, the Rambler-in-Chief ad-libbed the usual nonsense, stating that the anti-malaria drug chloroquine could be “a game changer … but maybe not.” In other words, scatterbrained gobbledygook in a time of crisis. He might as well have said there is a 50% chance of rain … but maybe not. On March 20, the “hunch” was upgraded to a “feeling.” His imprecise ramblings are clear for all to see in a scatological theatre of the absurd now playing daily at noon as are the lies about testing availability, ventilator shortages, and misguided flu scenarios. Is there no end to the incompetence? The fan-boy nonsense and limp anecdotal retellings quoted as gospel do no one any good. They say we get the politicians we deserve, but no one deserves this.

Sprinkled among the nonsense is how great things will be at the end, when the economy roars back. But one has only to compare the fatality curves from China, South Korea, Italy, and anywhere else after the first 100 cases to see that the United States is in for an Amityville-style horror show. We’re not over anything yet, nowhere near over. We’re on the rising side of a normal curve, where infections and deaths increase exponentially: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 in three weeks (doubling every 2.5 days), no one too troubled by the low absolute numbers at first. But then 512, 1,024, 2,048 just one week later as most of us start to get the picture. A Brobdingnagian picture without any corrective social distancing or increased prophylactic behaviour. It is not the current number of cases, but the rate of increase in cases, now doubling every 2 to 3 days.

Soon, as the numbers increase to 1 per 500 in your region, we will all know someone (or know someone who knows someone) infected in the cruellest of lotteries. As in all doubling games, you don’t notice at first and then suddenly you can’t see anything else. It only takes 6 connections to know Kevin Bacon. Everyone has an Erdös number now, the worst yet to come if we don’t keep social distance, even if you are well or asymptomatic.

Maybe on the right side of the curve you can smirk a handshake and blather on about nothing. But it does no one any good to bolt the gate after the horses leave. It does even worse to pretend the door is closed when it is wide open. Has no one told Trump about the obvious outbreak increase scenarios? Or how national infections are low because testing is low? Double a number every 2.5 days and you will soon have more trouble than tribbles.

To be sure, there is too much politics and not enough caring, too much concern over work and not workers (especially sick workers forced to continue in their jobs). As if fighting to stay ahead of the coming economic damage, Boris Johnson offered his own fusty deck-chair-colour advice to keep the turnstiles turning: “Please be reasonable in your shopping. Be considerate and thoughtful of others as you do it” (March 19). That is before the pubs, bars, and restaurants were ordered closed the next day. We don’t need beholden leaders to know what is right and wrong. We must be ever vigilant.

Remember the beleaguered BP head honcho forced to resign after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when he assured the public that “The overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.” After much legal wrangling, BP would pay $60 billion for its negligence in the largest ever U.S. litigation. The Deepwater Horizon was another disaster in the making because of bad planning, cost-cutting, low staff numbers permitted by Marshall Islands flagged rigs, and unregulated government leasing, while company arrogance added to the likelihood of failure. Without proper checks and balances, one assumes an air of invulnerability that leads to sloppy practice, relaxed safety measures, and regular oversight of problems, a.k.a. the “atrophy of vigilance.”

Perhaps we have gotten away with our ignorance about infectious diseases because previous outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and MERS came from somewhere else and were contained there, such that we in the West could escape the devastation. Well, we are the somewhere else and someone else now, having to discard our mistaken beliefs in exceptionalism and exclusivity. Karma? Stupidity? Faithlessness? Occult fascination? One needn’t turn to slanted mythology, 6,000-year-old origin stories (counted backwards from biblical begats), eschatology, or childish superstitions to understand. Safety is simple: fail to prepare and prepare to fail.

With a market in free-fall – essentially returning the gains of 3 years of billionaire tax breaks – we may learn that the Dow Jones is not the only measure of wealth whenever we finally come out the other end. Hopefully, new measures of commonwealth will win out. What less do I need? What can I do without? Backsplash kitchen islands, master-bedroom en suites, four-car garages to name a few. Or the everyday excess we allow into our lives, such as individually plastic-wrapped bananas, 24/7 junk food, and a ransomed throwaway culture. What does it profit us to win the world but lose our lives?

As we all know by now, we must keep our distance to “flatten” the curve, extending and lowering the peak to avoid overwhelming the health services, some already gone pop like a balloon in an exploding capacity crisis. Forget “herd immunity” and 70% infected to ensure a safer 2021 COVID-19 season. Or the Dutch middle way of closing schools, restaurants, bars, brothels, and coffeeshops (reopened to avoid black-market trade), yet permitting everyday transit, meetings of under 100 people, and apparent business as usual because ICUs are still available. That will mean nothing as previously robust systems fail. Stay away from possible infection (viral-laden water droplets in coughs and sneezes), be aware of danger, and keep safe. One hopes the worst will not come to pass, but it is far better to be overly cautious than underprepared.

Applause for those who can help in times of crisis: mortgage relievers, free online education providers, virtual tours, reliable international number sitesadvice to lower the effects of social connectivityWHO outbreak informationU.S. 15 Days to Slow the Spread guidelines15-minute tests (employing lateral flow technology in one blood drop rather than the 4-hour polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods that copy DNA samples), useful COVID-19 and e-learning linksfree access to medical research, explaining and replicating the seemingly lower fatality rates in Germany (early testing, more ICU beds, less kissing?), treatment development (antibodies that disable surface proteins, inhibiting viral binding onto human cells), mask recycling. And applause for all those who know that simple acts of kindness go a long way to easing the pain of others and will last forever in the hearts and minds of those afflicted. Hopefully, the science catches up to the danger sooner rather than later, but we can all be “caremongerers.”

Hang in there as the speed of sound turns to the speed of light in the coming weeks. Keep the faith and stay safe. There is nothing natural about this state of nature. No need to hoard or save for a rainy day – a daily increasing wet has arrived. Time to pay it forward and recapture our caring spirit. And turn an invisible hand into a helping hand.

Am I my brother’s keeper? To the extent that I can be, according to my ability and my needs. We can all give each other space to be ourselves and keep others safe. Just because you are well or seemingly immune doesn’t mean your neighbour shares the same good fortune. Let’s heed the health workers’ message: “We stayed at work for you. You stay at home for us.” Until this crisis too has passed.

John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: