There are times I have to cut myself off from the world. Usually that means I settle in for a “Doctor Who” marathon. (I’ve now finished, again, all the episodes from the Ninth through the 13th Doctor, who has one more season to go; I’ll probably go back and watch as many of the originals as I can on Brit Box.)
In those episodes, amid the humor and sometimes trite storylines, I find something that seems to be missing or broken in too many people now: a moral compass. The 10th Doctor especially, portrayed by David Tennant, struggled with decisions that might mean the extinction of a species, and when he went too far, he knew he’d have to accept the consequences, and he felt remorse (especially when Donna Noble was his companion; she acted not only as a comic foil, but as his conscience).
Meanwhile, in the real world, I see too much of people being needlessly cruel to each other, and too often gleefully. I wish I could feel confident that this is a temporary condition. However, as the last several years have shown us, it apparently was just waiting for the chance to come out as soon as someone broke down societal mores to the point where selfishness became a virtue.
I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t imagining what I was feeling. And then an article from The Atlantic popped up in one of my social media feeds, titled “On Top of Everything Else, the Pandemic Messed With Our Morals.”
“We’re only beginning to understand pandemic trauma,” wrote Jonathan Moens. “Every covid-19 death has unleashed a river of grief still flooding over the bereaved. Millions of coronavirus survivors are still ravaged by what the disease did to them. Even those who haven’t personally been touched by the virus have had to contend with lost jobs, anxiety, and missed opportunities. But for some people, the past year has also fundamentally broken their moral compass.”
The article dealt primarily with those who have been working on the front lines of the pandemic, and their feelings of guilt over following guidelines even when they feel they wouldn’t in ordinary circumstances, such as not letting family in the room to say goodbye to a dying loved one. The stress of that situation creates a moral injury.
Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project says, “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. … Moral injury almost always pivots with the dimension of time: moral codes evolve alongside identities, and transitions inform perspectives that form new conclusions about old events.”
Doctors and nurses have had to make choices they would not ordinarily make during the pandemic. I’m sure that there are many questioning how ICU capacity has been handled with so many beds taken up by covid patients. An Alabama man, Ray DeMonia, died earlier this month in Mississippi; he had suffered a cardiac event last month and emergency staff at his local hospital had to contact 43 hospitals in three states before they could find one with room in the cardiac ICU. The delay in care likely contributed to his death, which will probably cause quite a bit of guilt.
But there are other ways that our moral compasses have wobbled.
Many of us who encourage vaccinations feel bad when we offend a friend or family member by asking them to get vaccinated for their safety and everyone else’s. Then we get mad that we were made to feel guilty for encouraging something that should be a given in a public health crisis. Then we feel guilty that we got mad about it.
Then there are the people who intentionally cough on others or otherwise flout public health measures, or those who muse that perhaps unvaccinated covid patients should not be admitted to hospitals at all instead of taking up rooms needed by others.
I’m not saying that concerns about the unmasked and unvaccinated aren’t valid, because they certainly are. I’m also not saying that it’s OK, ever, to intentionally cough on someone (what did your mama teach you?).
Twenty years ago, we accepted restrictions in the wake of 9/11 because we knew they were for the common good. Some balked, of course, but relatively few refused to follow the new rules. Terrorists had just killed 3,000 people, so we were willing to weather discomfort.
Now, we’re in year two of a pandemic than has killed more than 4.55 million people worldwide, and we have people who not only refuse to follow public health guidelines, but are crowing about it, and encouraging others to do the same. They have decided that it’s OK to be selfish and cruel. They think that spreading misinformation, and possibly an infectious disease, is to be admired as long as you “own” someone with whom you disagree.
Some of the meanness can be accounted for by stress. The pandemic was declared more than a year and a half ago, and shows little sign of abating soon (which is why vaccination is encouraged). Some people lost their jobs or continued as “essential workers,” while others of us work from home, isolating ourselves for the protection of ourselves and others. That and pandemic protocols can take a very large toll on mental health, and sometimes, we snap.
But in what world is it ever morally acceptable to purposely try to infect someone, sell fake vaccination cards (for something that is free), threaten to harm someone for following the rules (pity the school officials tasked with enforcing mask mandates in a red state), or lick produce at a grocery store (just … ewww)?
Not this world, last I checked.
We all have the capacity for cruelty, but most of us have moral grounding that tempers that. We know that cruelty and other baser instincts go against social mores, and we stop ourselves, yielding to our better nature.
We know in our hearts what we should do when confronted with something that affects so many other people; we know we should err toward the common good, and right now that means following public health recommendations (if more of us had been doing that from the start, there’d probably be a lot fewer deaths, and we might not be in our fourth surge now).
What will it take to convince those who seem to delight in dark behavior to change for the better? No, really, I’m asking. Appealing to morals and the science hasn’t worked, and seems in some cases to exacerbate their behavior.
Vaccines and other measures have been proven to end pandemics in the past, such as cholera and smallpox (the first to be ended by a vaccine), which is a much better way of ending it than infecting everyone and hoping that they survive and develop antibodies.
Don’t we all want this pandemic to end? I’m starting to think some people don’t.