Preserve Self or Each Other?

These are turbulent times. Again.

The forest fires Down Under. The endless news of natural disasters in different parts of the world. Plane crashes.

And of course now the potential global pandemic that is the 2019 novel coronavirus.

My country has the unenviable position of being one of the worst hit outside China, with some 40 cases reported so far, thanks to seven more that were confirmed just yesterday. If the rate of new cases continues to rise here…sighh…

There’ve been endless streams of news, pictures, posts and videos on social media, in particular news of people buying by the cartons surgical masks, sanitisers and disinfectants, and in the last 48 hours, basic groceries like rice, packet noodles, canned food and toilet rolls! It’s as if the world is about to come to an end. And all because the health authorities have moved our nation’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition or DORSCAN code from yellow to orange (meaning the outbreak is deemed to have moderate to high public health impact).

Within a couple of hours of that public announcement on Friday, hordes of worried citizens flocked to supermarkets and wiped out shelves upon shelves of basic household items. You would think that a war was imminent going by the sudden surge of crowds and the long queues snaking every counter of every supermarket. Even our Prime Minister had to personally put out a public announcement to beg people to remain calm.

While all this hullabaloo was going on, some of us were left wondering if our fellow countrymen had been stricken by some other mind-debilitating disease. Sad that I even know personally people who have joined the mass madness – my own older brother and his wife were queueing the night before to stock up and prepare for the worst! I wish I could say that I was shocked, but I’m not. There’s little doubt in my mind why. People are all about self-preservation so of course they would behave this way. And that to varying degrees applies to everyone.

I would love to say I am above such nonsense and made of sturdier stuff.

But I can’t.

I remember several years ago during the time when the haze was pretty much an annual thing here thanks to unlawful burning of huge chunks of forests in neighbouring Indonesia. There was one particular day in June where the haze that travelled over to us was so bad that I could smell it even at my workplace during a workshop held in a sealed and air-conditioned room!

I recall that afternoon our management decided to issue each of us with one surgical mask to help with the unfortunate situation. With nary a thought, I found myself greedily pocketing up to four instead, reasoning that some colleagues were not in the office that day anyway so no sense wasting the masks. Another colleague next to me saw what I was doing, but she was polite enough not to ‘expose’ me (since many others were doing likewise too). In fact she actually said that I should take more since I had to think of my small kids at home.

I still look back on that moment with regret at my desperate act of self-preservation. Guess I really am only human.

So can I really blame people this past week for displaying such self-centred behaviour? Especially when the stakes are much higher now, what with the alarming ease with which this virus has been spreading everywhere (it’s proving to be more virulent than SARS). Not only is it not abating, it looks set to pick up pace still further. People are people, and we are naturally wired to self-preserve. So, when the news starts worsening, people start bolting – for supplies and, if things get any more dire, the doors to their home.

Times like this, I really just want to hear some hidden gems of goodness going around. I want to seek out and embrace the good that can still be found in my fellow human beings. And in myself as well. There was one touching tale yesterday of a health care worker who had been clocking 12 hour work days in the past week, and to make things worst, had to stay away from his family to minimise contact.

He had dragged his tired body to a nearby food stall to pack some lunch for himself as he hadn’t eaten much in the last few days. Seeing his uniform and mask, the stall keeper actually refused to serve him! Fortunately the person who retold this story came forward and offered to buy the lunch for the poor chap. Even as the worker thanked this kind-hearted samaritan, he also cautioned the man not to pass him the food directly but just leave it on the floor so as to minimise contact.

Kindness truly begets kindness.

I think we just have to ask ourselves, if we were those unkind hawkers who turned away a man in need, what if one day we are in that poor man’s shoes? Would we want others to turn us away too? In this case, it wasn’t even like the worker was a confirmed carrier running amok in public and posing a serious health risk to anyone within spitting distance.

He was a healthcare worker, on the very frontline of this virus war to keep the rest of us safe. And that’s the thanks he gets?

I sure hope I’ll be that samaritan should I witness something similar in the days ahead, and not the hawker.

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