(Ole Döring, with translations from the German original by Laura Han)
Over the past weeks, authorities and their experts issued numerous directives for dealing with COVID-19. What we fell short of were examples and models, how these often contradictory or vague directives should be put into sensible practice. What matters now, is to provide credible, comprehensible and valid orientation that everyone can individually relate to. Abstract models for action, regulations and protocols are soulless – human beings need human(e) patterns in order to take responsibility for health in a healthy manner. Which kind of orientation will guide us in this decisive phase, to decide, whether the confidence that carried us through the first weeks can prevail and grow into mature self-responsibility?
Do we need heroes?
Nurses and caregivers have been called heroes since for at least two years. The relevant measures of hero worshipping remained symbolic, certainly ineffective – improving neither working conditions nor payment or general recognition and proper appreciation. This is one of the factors in our social conundrum, that even a huge number of vacant intensive care beds is of no use, even with high-tech equipment, without sufficient qualified personnel.Moreover, the sudden discovery of hero material among cashiers in supermarkets, too, was hardly of any consequence except for the occasional glimpse of limelight. The hero as such is notoriously ambivalent and no authority to depend upon in times of crisis: Accordingly, condescending talk now refers to “alleviation heroes”, who prematurely call for a reinstating business as usual, “at the expense of the citizens’ trust in the reliability of the crisis policy”. Heroes show up in desperate situations. Depending on them is an act of alienation, departing from our own good selves. Models are abstractions, reflections of who we will never be. They can inspire us but will not motivate sovereign action.
Human examples and role models, on the other hand, are people we can learn from. What is special about such examples is that each one is impressive beyond their actual field of competence, and, at the same time, stay “one of us”. An example is someone who finds the right language and ways when people verbally abuse or bully others, when attention and respect deteriorate into disregard or assault. Exemplary is the personal attitude to resolve conflicts at hand. Not out of self-importance or presumption but selfless, out of empathy. We can connect with the added value in someone’s acquired practical judgement, learn how adequately to practice civil courage or solidarity. When ordinary people dutifully doing their work, as cashiers or in hospitals, out of the blue find themselves as “heroes”, the surprise might be pleasant for a while. But it gives way to disillusionment when this hero-divination turns into a commonplace which, above all, makes others feel good. When the words are not followed by deeds, when there is no respect, when they still find themselves as „poor lonesome heroes”, left alone in their desk-cages, without protective masks, confronted with reckless people who push, spit, swear at them: where, then, is anyone setting an example, to protect, support and appreciate our “heroes” instead of exposing them to ridicule and disdain? Honestly, naming someone a hero in this sense is to abandon them to their own means. The palliative approach applies to everyone, but especially to them. The “coat” (lat. pallium) is one of commitment, not one of silence. Already when trying words such as “civil courage”, “commitment” or “respect”, it becomes strikingly uneasy to realize how odd they appear for our times. Are we able, despite their frequent abuse, to get ourselves involved in what we understand is the true and good about their meaning?
On the other hand, this is about balanced distance.
Keeping a certain distance is a basic social competence that is connected to our human condition. The bio-social-psychological corporeality (German „Leib“) reminds us of the perceivable continuum our experience generates, as extensions of our self awareness in different environmental perspectives. We do not need to be reminded by viral risks of our natural knowledge about proper distance. It grows from the sensual encounter of personal space and privacy. We continuously negotiate and redetermine it, as a matter of social learning. This empathic knowledge is now needed, to bring us on the right track. To reach out and shake hands, is a combined act, of keeping the distance while calibrating the margins of intimacy, according to situational propriety. Activities that include the exchange of particular body fluids are traditionally prescribed in the rites, symbols and forms of conduct in our cultures. It is way too convenient, to allow attitudes of tolerance regarding the disruption of deeply cultured social understanding. Such pretended generosity means that we fail to muster our genuine social competences and work it out according to the demands of our time. In between the listlessly indifferent „How do I tell my child?”, the heedless sporting of any textile face cover, or the infringing arrogance of one self-righteous authority, everyone is responsible for one’s role as a citizen: whether it is about proper masking or observance of the distancing rules. We could observe, how role models for health emerge in the context of sports education. Were schools not being denigrated as problem zones, but appreciated, staffed and stocked according to the potential treasure vault for social health they are, physical education: especially for the youngest, sports is the ideal setting to learn everything that is needed for corporeal awareness and social competence, provided an appropriately trained and equipped guidance. This also extends to the ability to navigate judgement, considering situational interpretation, exceptions, the understanding of differentiation without discrimination, of responsibility and considerateness, of deficits, accomplishment, and the joy of life. In the course of interaction among individual social body-spaces, when grasping abstract orders and personal perception, connecting attentive observation and exploration, a genuine understanding can be formed, of what it really means, for every „me“, to protect oneself and others, as implications of health.
Decisions make the way!
This is the very point, where the exemplary model can rise, without an air of heroism. Within the zones of transition, we decide everything – we are making the crucial choice: to be hero or example, to design schools for child-keeping or for healthy education, to use technology for people or humans for technology, to take food as consumption or nourishment of life, to pay hospitals for illness or for health delivery, to inspire society for solidarity or egoism, to align economy for the creation of value or commercial greed, to organize politics for order or chaos, to program governance for maturity or paternalism, science for freedom or numbers, culture for optimism or culture of fear? Do we wish to delegate responsibility, or do we want to elaborate a social division of collaborative work, so that problems are not just relayed but can be solved? The orientation we choose, the path we take, will inform us about what we are. This lineup of examples is incomplete. But it shows how huge, broad and profound the problems are that we have accumulated, over the last decades, whilst in other parts of our world new standards were being crafted, for civilizational progress – a fact the “Old World” can no longer deny. We can only persist if we advance while acknowledging the new geo-strategic realities.
Standards prescribe clear patterns – they must be defined legitimately, monitored by controls and reinforced by sanctions. Proportionality demands that we secure the evidence and then treat equals equally, applying the standards according to purpose. What are our standards prescribing interventions for health? Based on what we know about COVID-19, compared with other problems, why do precisely these standards apply, in the proclaimed manner? Shall these new standards remain in place, as a corrective, after this crisis will be over? These questions are on the table, begging for answers, now, in all consequence. This does not mean endless rounds of discussions. Contrarily: the surrogate shows we see on TV do not introduce models, nor heroes and, usually, no relevant examples either. I feel uneasy, being asked to entrust leaders with my life who are incapable of distinguishing between war and crisis or hero and example. We must not leave politicians and experts alone in this matter! Let us all try better, to become examples, so that the standards for health may serve our lives!