[OPINION] Thoughtless and callous: Is the coronavirus bringing out the worst in us?

[OPINION] Thoughtless and callous: Is the coronavirus bringing out the worst in us?
Lost in the moralism of these celebrities and their supporters is the state of the working class

Crises are supposed to bring out the best in us. 

In our experience as a nation, our virtuous spirit has shone through many times during earthquakes, typhoons, and other disasters. 

Think about it. Volunteerism is alive whether it’s among the youth, the religious, or neighbors in a community. Whenever donation drives are organized, we can expect even strangers to pitch in.

Indeed, it’s during extraordinary circumstances when the values that truly define our relationships emerge.  

At the same time, however, extraordinary circumstances bring out the worst in us as a people. 

From a sociological perspective, the reason is not that people are inherently selfish.

It is because of inequality. In our society, social divisions are undeniable and the moral views to which we subscribe are necessarily shaped by our privileges and limitations. 

Unfortunately, these views color the way we see each other. COVID-19 has rendered this far more visible.

The celebrities among us

Celebrities became moralists overnight. A statement, echoed by a few of them, went viral:

“To those who are complaining about the quarantine period and curfews, just remember that your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. You can do this.”

Lea Salonga and James Deakin were heavily criticized for what came across as insensitive remarks. Responding to criticisms, Deakin asserted that he was referring a to a specific group of non-essential workers. It was, of course, too late a defense. (READ: [OPINION] The out-of-touch, elitist gaps in our lockdown)

Other influencers gave it a religious meaning. 

Iza Calzado commented on Lea Salonga’s post: “I agree with this and have been thinking about how the COVID-19 situation is actually the Universe’s way of making the world a better place moving forward. Praying for the best.”

Martin Nievera offered 3 praying hands and a heart. 

Admirers came to their defense, demanding that people should shut up. In two different videos, a teenager ranted about the government’s vocal critics who, in her view, should “shut up” and “wash your hands” because “this will pass.” She wanted all of us to “be encouraging to one another” and “cooperate with the government” because “writing isn’t gonna help anyone.” (READ: [OPINION] Loving your country is very different from loving your government)

Lost in their moralism was the state of the working class.

Failure of leadership

Questioning this government does not mean the critical among us wish the virus to continue spreading.

Whenever we ask questions or make comments it is because we believe that things could be (so much) better.

It’s not as if we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Medical practitioners have turned to social media because that is the only platform where they feel they could be heard. On Twitter, Dr. Gia Sison, for example, was compelled to negate Panelo’s claim that bananas will kill the coronavirus.  

And yet one does not even have to be an expert to realize that the government’s drastic policies were bound to fail. Did the cabinet secretaries really expect that locking down the capital without giving ample time to transition was going to succeed?

Managing change is both an art and a skill that people who work with communities know very well. 

Truth be told, people do understand that placing everyone on quarantine is necessary. To do so is more urgent now that data scientists project that 26,000 might be infected by the end of March.

But no one can make sense of it if even the president himself does not know how to speak intelligibly. Worse, Panelo, his insufferable spokesperson, spreads fake news.  

The anxieties people now feel derive precisely from the failure of leadership. That our leaders took a while to prepare for the problem is in itself an indication of this failure. 

The result: chaos. 


“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.” These are the words of Frank O’ Hara, an American poet, in Meditations in an Emergency

Although written more than 60 years ago, these words ring true. The only difference is that in our present context, some of us have decided that some are worth loving more than others.

This is the blind spot that comes with thoughtless and callous remarks. The words of Cat Arambulo-Antonio are telling. Upon seeing the news about people at checkpoints, the blogger exclaimed,  “Why don’t you motherfuckers just stay at home?”

What a tragic mistake.

It’s not that Filipinos are undisciplined. The problem is that the most vulnerable among us already bear the brunt of ill-conceived policies. 

These are the poor and the working class — those who struggle on a daily basis to make ends meet. That’s why they’re still in the streets, a reality that the privileged will never understand.

In the final analysis, the COVID-19 crisis — a decisive moment that should have brought out the best in us — has only sharpened the division in our society. 

The privileged few are watching Netflix. The rest are stuck at the borders. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Associate Professor and Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. He is a 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist of the National Academy of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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