There have been some wonderful stories about the generosity of people faced with the global crisis that Covid 19 has created. The British Press is full of selfless stories of volunteering -scientists, doctors and nurses coming out of retirement to help, and over 700,000 ordinary people offering to help in any way they can.
Wonderful stuff. It genuinely brings a warm feeling that perhaps one can believe in the decency of humans after all.
Of course, the crisis might have been less in the UK had the public sector not been reduced to such a pitiful level. I am irritated when I listen to British politicians evading questions like why are there fewer intensive care beds per head of the population and far fewer Covid19 testing kits here than in , say, Germany.
My pessimistic view is that when this is all over, as they say, the lesson will not be learnt; The People (as they like to call them) will once again fail to recognise that the State must be properly funded for the general good.
I can hardly remember a word of what I read at university, but I think I will have another look at Hobbes, whose view of mankind was that without government the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. His pessimism about the natural state of mankind strikes a chord with me.
People have baulked at Hobbes’ solutions. He believed that government must have absolute authority to be effective and that people should recognise this and not seek to counter it. Which brings in the whole debates about the nature of the social contract – another day…..
Over the past few days I have been reflecting on two more specific issues, both of which make me feel gloomy.
One is what should the old expect of the State, of the fellow members of their society, in the way of care and support?
We know that most of those who got Covid 19 in China were old and that over 20% of the over eighties with the virus died. It is too soon to have a more accurate global picture (and interestingly in the US there seem to be more younger victims) but the world has been turned upside down by a frightening disease which appears to affect mainly the old.
There are some difficult questions to answer. Who gets the ventilator? Hospitals in Alsace say the person who is under 80, and apparently this is becoming the case nearer home, in Montpellier. I think if I – soon to be 77 – were asked to give way to a younger patient I would agree to, although I would like to be fit enough to question why insufficient money and organisation was not devoted to getting enough ventilators for all. (Also, of course this choice begs the broader question of why should young people in the West get the ventilators before those in developing countries or refugee camps.)
But there is a more fundamental and uncomfortable question which is maybe coming to the surface, thought not necessarily explicitly expressed, by those for whom the health of the economy is the overriding health priority.
Put crudely, why put our finances at risk and incur a horrible burden for future generations in order to counter a pandemic which is most dangerous for the old – who after all, are going to die soon anyway? (I read in an American newspaper that the Coronavirus is referred to by some as the ‘Boomer remover’.) This may also have been in the minds of the young who have partied despite lockdown.
Covid 19 brings dramatically to the fore the fact that looking after old people is very expensive indeed. Not only do we cost a fortune to keep alive medically, but many need expensive care in homes. And all this for a sector of the population which is no longer contributing to the creation of its wealth.
I was suddenly reminded of a film which I saw when I was twelve and whose dramatic imagery has stayed with me all my life. In Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, we follow the family’s desperate descent into grinding poverty, the mother’s increasing resentment at having to feed an elderly, toothless, relative. I can still remember my 12-year-old horror when the old woman solves the problem; she hobbles out of the village and is later found by the boy Apu – dead.
Is that what we should do at a certain stage, walk out of our village? And what age? (Life expectancy – and accompanying incapacity – varies according to income, location and century. ) Are we dispensable? Like the people of Yemen, like those in the refugee camps, like the millions in India now returning to their villages in panic?
I listened to the BBC Radio programme Any Questions this weekend. Most of it was very poor, but I remember one participant saying quite clearly that ultimately each human life is precious, and that the purpose of economic wealth should be to support this life, not to be in competition with it.
I hope she was right. It is not a good time to be old now, to feel almost guilty for being old and for surviving. Certainly for some surviving is not something to aspire to, but I for one still cherish life.
The second specific and gloomy issue is also related: that of how the over 70s are supposed to do their shopping, and how it reflects on the under 70s.
The official message has been quite clear: the elderly and those with health problems must absolutely avoid contact. I have already written about how our mayor shrugged off the problem, as if it were nothing to do with him. I don’t get the feeling that other local communes have seen it as their responsibility to organise anything.
I hear stories of groups of neighbours getting together, for example in my friend Dessa’s hamlet. And this morning I met a couple from further up my hill and we got talking – at a distance. They and their immediate neighbours have got together to share trips to the pharmacy.
They had not realised until now that I was on my own. Instantly they offered to help with any shopping I needed. I explained I had asked Gildas (Ah, Gildas, they said, approvingly. Très ecolo – very Green.) I thanked them and said how deeply touched I was as they had been the first people since the lockdown a fortnight ago to offer help.
This lack of help has hurt my friend Margaret far more than me. She has spent her life in public service – as town councillor in a very large German town, as an active member of Amnesty, and here as secretary of the association for Ancients Combattants , and treasurer of the old people’s association, and she is known as one of the main (and excellent) cooks at all communal village events. She is perplexed, hurt and angry at the complete absence of any offer of help in the village of Serres, despite the fact that everybody knows they are over 80 and that Hans is not in good health. Even her friends in Bréau, who ring to ask how she is, do not understand. They say their family is shopping for them. We have no family, says Margaret. Silence.
Hans is more sanguine; he just thinks this is typical of the French. But Margaret will not let it go. When this is all over (that phrase again), she says, she is going to tell people what she thinks of their lack of civic sense and will never cook another dish for village meals.
I have no way of knowing how widespread this lack of civic responsibility for coordinating action is in France – and indeed what goes on in other European countries. But my gut feeling is that this is very much a local, rural, Cévenol response to problems. Society in the Cévennes is centred on the family and looking after your own. (Sometimes I have seen the attitude to who are your own extends to those you grew up with, went to school with – and who are almost certainly cousins of one sort or another.)
We are the incomers – the estrangers. Nous ne sommes pas d’ici. That applies not just to us the foreigners, but to incomers from other parts of France. After 20 years living here there are many jolly greetings and superficial friendships. But ultimately, we don’t fit easily into this code of looking after your own.