Maintaining our sense of solidarity

Solidarity with others is vital if we are to navigate the Covid-19 crisis,  writes Greg Marcar.

The continuing spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) — including at the time of writing, 28 confirmed cases in New Zealand — has provoked a variety of reactions.

Chief among these appears to be fear.

As the number of international cases continues to rise, there is an understandable desire to take all possible measures to minimise the risk that we might be infected from elsewhere, as epitomised, perhaps, by the Government's travel restrictions on particular countries.

Without wishing to play down the seriousness of this situation, or the accompanying necessity for certain safety precautions, I would like here to highlight another dimension of human experience which trans-national crises such as Covid-19 may bring to the fore: namely, that of our solidarity in the face of communal challenges.

In addition to being the catalyst for inward-looking fear, Covid-19 also brings into sharp relief our interdependence and collective vulnerability as human beings.

Displaying a total lack of appreciation for our penchant of separating ourselves into distinct socio-economic groups and interests, Covid-19 reminds us that if our neighbour's neighbours are sick, we cannot fully insulate ourselves from the consequences, any more than if the neighbourhood were on fire.

The health and wellbeing of others directly affects my own, and vice versa. Even as we continue to live on these islands, no human being (as the poet John Donne once famously put it), is an island.

The question remains, however, how we best translate our shared vulnerability into a sense of shared responsibility towards others. In his novel La Peste (The Plague), Albert Camus describes the onset, spread and eventual containment of a contagious disease in Oran, a port city in French Algeria.

One of the main characters in La Peste is Jean Tarrou, who out of a belief that the plague is everyone's responsibility, takes a role organising volunteers within the beleaguered town. Towards the end of the novel, Tarrou speaks of what drives his work and belief, stating that what interests him is "how to become a saint", and the "only problem" he perceives is whether one can "be a saint without God".

Camus does not provide closure to this provocative question, perhaps, one might suggest, because it is ultimately unanswerable.

For Camus, authentic human solidarity can only be realised through an appreciation of our shared morality; our common human condition of living on earth with an expiry date.

Under such a framework, a major obstacle to human solidarity persists in our tendency to ascribe judgement. This would have been even more acute at the time of the New Testament, when disease was closely connected in the public imagination to sinfulness and punishment.

In our modern and more secular times, these categories perhaps have their counterparts in cultural judgements about how "others" live.

In this, Christianity's vision of humanity may make a difference. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, human solidarity derives from the belief that all human beings are created by, and in the image of, God. This fundamentally challenges, and should subvert, any prior categories which we might have for dividing people into categories of "us" and "them".

In healing those afflicted with leprosy-like diseases (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16), Christ himself is pictured actively reaching out to those considered outcasts in his society.

As we continue to try to navigate fear-provoking crises, from Covid-19 to climate change, my hope is we can each maintain a sense of solidarity with others, regardless of the island they are on.

 - Greg Marcar is a research affiliate and teaching fellow at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago.



'Secular puritanism' is a theme in NZ literature (Frank Sargeson, Maurice Gee).

It survives today in concepts of Deserving/Undeserving poor.