Ethics at a Distance
Vafa Ghazavi for the Boston Review
April 22nd, 2020
Following is an excerpt from the commentary by Asia 21 Young Leader Vafa Ghazavi, originally published by the Boston Review on April 21st, 2020.
As we sat down for dinner the other night, the windows of our Oxford apartment started rattling. Outside, the street was erupting in applause as neighbors put their hands together—and their tin pots—for the UK’s National Health Service. We threw open our windows and joined the din for what is now a weekly national ritual during the pandemic. I thought of our city’s hospital, where a friend works in emergency. With a little pride, I also thought of my mother back in Australia, an Iranian refugee who worked for decades as a registered nurse.
The gesture of gratitude was symbolic, of course. It was another reminder of how Janus-faced the fight is: individuated, tiny acts binding us to our collective fate. The only way to beat it, experts say, is to “flatten the curve.” By slowing its spread, we can buy time for health systems to get it under control, including by increasing ICU capacity and upping the supply of ventilators and protective equipment.
In many places where the health crisis is acute, the importance of individual action has gone from widely dismissed to an article of faith. Hand washing. Coughing into your elbow. Restricting activities outside your home. These ordinary, everyday acts now have vast human, political, and economic ramifications. The implications of what seemed trivial a few weeks ago now reach to the heights of geopolitics and the rise and fall of nations. The core responsibility of each person has a strangely paradoxical character: the social thing to do is to isolate yourself. In an unusually explicit way, the virus makes salient the power of a single person.