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Paul Vallely: Coronavirus sharpens moral dilemmas

20 March 2020

We should all consider making small sacrifices, says Paul Vallely


President Trump holds a meeting with nurses on the coronavirus response at the White House on Wednesday

President Trump holds a meeting with nurses on the coronavirus response at the White House on Wednesday

IT IS not quite clear what President Trump has been up to over the search for a vaccine for Covid-19.

Reports in the respected German newspaper Die Welt suggested that the American President was trying to buy exclusive access to the work of a Tübingen medical research company, CureVac, whose second biggest shareholder is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has long been searching for a malaria vaccine. It was said that President Trump had offered $1 billion to persuade the company to transfer its coronavirus research to the United States and make the vaccine available only to Americans.

On Monday, German government sources confirmed the story. Then, CureVac posted a message on Twitter, in apparent contradiction, that it had not received any offer from the US government. But things grew more murky when it was revealed that CureVac’s CEO, Daniel Menichella, had been to the White House to discuss the vaccine with President Trump — and that Mr Menichella had left the company abruptly soon afterwards.

Whatever went on, what was clear — from the way in which the story was reported internationally — was that the rest of the world regarded this as a new low for even President Trump. It laid bare the selfishness that is implicit in the President’s America First ideology, just as his description of Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” exposed his barely disguised xenophobia.

The coronavirus crisis has focused our minds in a new way on the continuum between selfishness, self-interest, enlightened self-interest, selflessness, and sacrifice. It is easy to take the high moral ground and point a self-righteous finger here. But, as the philosopher Onora O’Neill pointed out this week, doing the right thing is easier for some of us than for others.

Assiduously following the Government’s new stricter advice on minimising social contact is challenging enough for an affluent elderly couple who choose to self-isolate for 12 weeks in their own comfortable home. But a deliveryman who will not get paid if he does not go to work faces a much trickier moral dilemma. Like so many others in the zero-hours gig economy, he has to choose between earning the money to put food on the table, and following official advice designed to slow the spread of the virus in the interests of the greater good of the greatest number in society.

Perhaps the answer is, for each of us, within the parameters of our particular current situation in life, to consider what small sacrifices we might make for the good of others. We need not be short of ideas: examples of goodness abound. Schoolchildren have posted cards through the letterboxes of elderly neighbours offering to do their shopping. A hotel is delivering free dinners to old people. One shop is dropping off hand gel to pensioners. The kindness of strangers is everywhere.

One particularly inspiring example was of the two friends who looked at the empty shelves in the supermarket, and, instead of thinking about their own needs, set up a charity to supply essential toiletries to the vulnerable. The coronavirus crisis is bringing out the best side of human nature, as well as the worst. We just have to choose which side to take.

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