22. The individual, the collective and the problem with essential

Beneath all the numbers and data points of the pandemic, you’ll find some of the human stories that need to be told.

Whether it’s the doctors and nurses on the front-line, the nuance and complexity of vaccine trials and roll-outs, or the tragic human Petri dish that has been witnessed in the Amazonian city of Manaus, there are human stories of the challenges and trials (and also triumphs) of the COVID world.

This week there was some coverage for the plight of a man who had accepted a job in Ireland and set about moving from Brazil with his wife and two young children. As an Italian citizen, Bruno Scabora is entitled to work and travel freely within the European Union — at least in less fraught times. (News link, paywalled)

Having travelled ahead of time to start work and arrange accommodation, his family has now been prevented from coming to Ireland due to the fact that under current restrictions, there is a freeze on visa applications.

Two applications for emergency family reunification were dismissed by Irish authorities, with the bureaucrats’ official response including lines such as “reasons for emergency travel do not include missing a loved one”.

Surely, for anyone thinking rationally, this should be chilling.

Contrast this official response to Mr Scabora and, undoubtedly, hundreds or thousands of others around Ireland and around the world, with a vital clause of the constitution of the Irish state.

Article 41 reads:

The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

Of course, you could make several arguments on the details.

You could argue that as Mr Scabora is not an Irish citizen, that the Irish constitution may not apply.

You could also argue that the free movement of people is one of the fundamental reasons for the spread of COVID-19, and that everyone needs to deal with personal and difficult challenges in the interest of the greater good.

You could also argue that none of us looking in from the outside really know the true depth and nuance of the details of this particular case.

But the purpose of this is not to discuss legal arguments or the specifics of a single case. It’s an attempt to focus my attention, and maybe yours too, on one of the great and profound impossibilities of the pandemic: the individual, the collective and the problem with how we define what’s essential.

We have heard the word “essential” thrown around with abandon over the past 12 months.

At times, only essential travel is permitted, only essential retail is allowed to trade and only essential construction sites are permitted to operate.

It is ludicrous, absurd and impossible to think of essential in these terms, for one primary reason.

What is essential to me is not essential to you.

And that is the way it should be in any mature society that values the freedom of its people to choose their own lives, work toward their own destinies and help to empower or elevate anyone who might find themselves helpless, whether that helplessness is from permanent condition or temporary situation.

I know a couple who are currently building a new home for themselves and their young family after almost a decade in rented accommodation.

If they followed the official advice to the letter, construction work would have stopped.

To almost everyone in the country, this work was not essential. To this family, it’s the most essential thing of all.

How is it possible to square that circle? Is it possible at all?

There are no easy solutions to the new challenges everyone has been faced with over the first year of the pandemic. It has uprooted the way we do everything, and amid such upheaval, it is inevitable for chaos to reign before such time as order is restored.

Absurd definitions of what is or is not “essential” does nothing to create order. All it does is create new divisions in society based on the personality traits of people. Some people will follow all advice faithfully. Others will think for themselves, oppose absurdity when they see it and ignore anything they see as ridiculous.

Among the many questions the pandemic has asked of all of us is this:

What are your most intrinsic values?

Intrinsic values are the things — experiences, qualities, emotions, wants and needs — that are essential and absolute (and absolutely non-negotiable) to you.

The thing about values is that there are no wrong values. There are only values that are wrong for you. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

If your intrinsic values include security and order, there’s a good chance you will follow the official line and you will look with frustration and anger at the selfish people whose desire to go their own way threatens to create anarchy.

If your intrinsic values include freedom and self-reliance, then there’s a good chance you’re experiencing a complete breakdown in trust in institutions — including governments, universities and media — that you see as dangerously authoritarian and necessary to oppose.

And that’s the problem with one-sided definitions of what’s essential.

Perhaps this is the primary challenge of democracy.

In a democracy, the individual might be seen as vital, and the family unit might be regarded as a fundamental element of an orderly society. Governments and universities and businesses and nonprofits are all made up of individuals, but those individuals come together to form a separate entity, and that separate entity might align itself with groups and groupthink and behave in a way that no individual ever would, in a way that is fundamentally not good for many of the individuals it represents.

In 1947, Winston Churchill wrote:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.

Perhaps the most important questions will always be impossible to answer with any sense of completeness.

Life — individually, and in the collective — might just be an endless game of whack-a-mole, where we solve one problem and immediately see a new one. And often, the new problem is a direct result of the solution to the previous one.

We can be confident that in the long run, the trend-line is upwards. That general progress is inevitable even when individual suffering is impossible to avoid.

Perhaps the best we can do is take the care we need to strengthen ourselves without inflicting any hurt on anyone else, and that individual empowerment — the strengthening of individuality as a different proposition to the individualistic greed that is the undercurrent to so many boardrooms and corridors of power — creates the best outcomes for the collective.

A commitment to that approach, if it’s even possible, would require authorities to have a deeper level of trust in everyone. For everyone to decide for ourselves what is essential, without disrespect to laws or customs or other people.

Maybe that’s no more than a crazy, utopian dream.

But dreams are important for a life well lived. Maybe, even, essential.

This essay is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email as each one is published.