After 16 hours and a short flight down to Gatwick, we finally took off for our destination, at one o’clock in the morning. As the cabin lights dimmed and the plane left the runway, there was a civilised cheer from the passengers.
A last-minute invitation, to join our parents for a week in Tenerife was jumped at by my brother and I, both students aged 20 and 22. A week in the sun in miserable January? Yes please. But the gods had other plans – or rather the French air traffic controllers did, when they cancelled our breakfast flight that day from Manchester. Now here we were, cruising through the night sky to a previously unvisited place, with no currency, no address and only the vague hope that our parents, on another flight, would not have been held up as much as we had been. Otherwise, when we landed at sunrise, we would be facing an indeterminate stay in the airport until they did arrive. Pre mobile phones, I was cursing not having taken any details from them before we set off. Our planes were meant to have landed within 25 minutes of each other and we had naively assumed all would be well.
It made a good story though, and during the many hours of sitting around at first in Manchester airport and then at Gatwick, we had made friends with a couple just a few years older than I was. And here was one of them, Graham, coming up the aisle to us now. He pressed what felt like a wad of bank notes into my hand.
“Our address is there too. Here’s some money so you can get some food, take a taxi and spend the day on the beach. If your folks don’t arrive by evening you can sleep on our floor.”
When the older lady in front heard this, she turned round and demanded to know what was going on. We explained and she prodded her sleeping husband in the side: “These poor kids are without their parents and haven’t a bean,” she said and he too fished into his pocket.
“What’s that?” said a man across the aisle. It was incredible. We had to insist they put their wallets away, while promising Graham we would indeed meet up and pay him back.
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “We trust you.”
That was 31 years ago and some might say the world has changed a bit since then. Experts1 disagree.
Our delayed flight wasn’t a disaster; yes, we were uncertain about whether we would ever get to our holiday, and yes, we were cooped up in windowless airport terminals for 16 hours, turning night and day on their heads, but we weren’t ill, injured, homeless or bereaved. We were fed and watered, just bored and inconvenienced. As incidents go it was minor. But it still brought out some extraordinary kindness. Strangers shared provisions, loaned money, swapped addresses, older parents stepping up in loco parentis to two adult but pretty clueless students.
There is a vast body of work which supports our experiences. The more extreme the situation the more people exhibit courage, kindness, empathy and altruism. Humankind 2 published in 2020 presents a range of evidence that shows that the majority of people is decent. When tragedies strike, we act calmly and help others; crises bring out the best in us. Bergman, the book’s author suggests the belief that people are greedy, selfish and cynical is a relatively modern construct created by those in positions of power because it is in their interests to ‘divide and rule’ the masses.
In 2005, as I was preparing to begin a two-day trauma course in London, news came in of the 7th July terror attacks around the capital. We immediately contacted the London Trauma Lead to offer our services, but were told that already people were coming in from days off and annual leave, that they would be falling over themselves with willing hands.
We continued with the course and as there was no transport that evening, we doubled up our on-site accommodation and shared our rooms – and clothes, with strangers. The closest restaurant, having cancelled all other bookings, remained open for us, knowing we could not get out of the capital and would go without dinner otherwise.
So, if people are fundamentally good, kind and collaborative, how do we find ourselves in the current situation with the COVID-19 Pandemic? Many people are still being considerate towards one another and continuing with their restricted lifestyles for the benefit of strangers, but some are not. During this second surge and especially over the last six weeks or so, we have seen even the kindest of people acting selfishly, exempting themselves from what they know to be the right thing to do but using justification about needing or deserving to see other households on Christmas day, go shopping when they could order in, stopping for coffee or lunch amid their days out. Some of them may well be key workers who are heartily tired of sacrificing their own and their family’s health for others, and feel they deserve a haircut or a hot chocolate. Many are not. This is the thin end of the wedge and the nightmare for which we are all braced as we begin 2021 will have been amplified by these actions.
Far worse though is the swell of opinion that claims that COVID-19 is a hoax. People outside St Thomas’s hospital, on Twitter, given air time on radio and television shows, as Professor Hugh Montgomery said3, have blood on their hands. But because they do not know whose blood, they conveniently ignore it.
Why is the second wave so different from the first in the ways that people respond to it? We did see collaboration in the spring, people looking after neighbours, chatting over the fence, striking up conversations in the park with strangers. We followed the rules and there was a sense of solidarity. So, what has changed?
Even before we reached the second wave, and this abhorrent behaviour, Bregman had answered my question. What changes our innate tendency to collaborate and support each other is control. Until the first enclosures came about, and nomadic peoples stopped wandering the earth looking for food and shelter, and began settling in the fertile lands, claiming sections of them for their own, we shared everything, in large groups which in turn shared with other large groups. But post enclosures, when ownership began, and led to buying and selling, charging rent, hierarchy and organisations, people became divided, exploited and fearful. To cut a long story short it is man-made so-called ‘civilisation’ and all of its layers of policy, protocol and politics that have crafted us into the people we have become. The baffling Covid tiers, over four countries, with their many loopholes, exceptions and caveats have reduced us again to slave-like inconsequentials. We are treated like cattle to be herded, not people to be worked with. And when you treat people as if they are stupid, they behave stupidly. With Covid, the layers of bureaucracy have overtaken the real story of death and debility – hence the cry that it is fake. So much energy is spent – by politicians and regular people, defending their selfish positions that there is none left for others. Yet again the desire of a minority to command and control has reduced our natural human instinct to care and collaborate.
So, what can be done?
We need to take our eyes off the news, off the propaganda machinery and look to each other. Bregman and others like him say that beliefs matter. How we view those around us and ourselves strongly affects out attitudes and actions. We are what we believe. If we believe that everyone is bad, that Covid is a ruse to exert greater social control, we will become as base as the very people we accuse of doing that.
But if we have a different narrative, one that insists on believing that people are essentially good and kind and want to help each other, we can – and do – bring about more collaboration.
There was much talk of the blitz spirit at the start of the pandemic and even that is subject to very differing views today. We can’t actually know what it was like then, or during the Spanish ‘flu. But we can look back to times like my delayed flight to Tenerife, the July bombings, and remember when we have faced situations that resulted in people coming together and working for the greater good. Those times we have been helped by others, altruistically, when we needed it. And we can remind ourselves that it is pay back time.
A little bit like aeroplanes, in this world what goes around comes around. We benefit from helping others and they benefit from helping us as well as being helped. I know I am preaching to the converted here, but if you can persuade one person to read this who you think needs to, maybe we can bring about a small change? Thinking of others is thinking of ourselves. We are not fully separate. We depend upon each other. We share the same economy, the same places to live, the same work places, the same world. If it is bad for them, it will be bad for us.
No man is an island, said John Donne. We reap what we sow, claimed the bible. By hiding our inherent goodness, we are doing untold damage to ourselves and others. If Covid doesn’t kill us all, then our fearful aggression will.
Let’s stop and think, and remember who we are.
- Rebecca Solnit http://rebeccasolnit.net/book/a-paradise-built-in-hell/
- Bergman, R. (2020) Humankind. Bloomsbury