Personal responsibility's a hard sell - Keith Roulston editorial
The panelist on a TV news program about how to protect the public from false and distorted news on social media giants Facebook and Twitter probably spoke for many when he asked “Whatever happened to personal responsibility?”
Personal responsibility is supposed to be what makes a democracy work, but if there’s one thing that has become evident in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it’s not easy to persuade a large portion of people to take that responsibility seriously.
Both our Premier and Prime Minister have become emotional in the recent surge in infections as they begged people to take the simple actions required to lessen the spread while we wait for widespread vaccine distribution – physically distance, wash your hands, wear a mask and stay home unless it’s essential.
Compared to the first wave last spring, the number of contacts per confirmed case has multiplied by several times, making contact tracing almost impossible.
Here in southwestern Ontario the last few Saturdays have seen protests in Aylmer, St. Thomas and London against restrictions such as masks and physical distancing designed to slow the spread of the virus and save lives. Protesters claim they have the right to make their own choices about wearing a mask, which really means choosing not to wear one at all.
Such protesters, and others across Canada and around the world, demand their privileges under democracy, but ignore the personal responsibility that comes as part of the package in a free society. They see masks as an infringement on freedom, but ignore the reality that when they refuse to wear a mask they may endanger the lives of others.
Of course many of the anti-mask protesters duck the issue of personal responsibility by claiming they don’t believe there really is a COVID-19 crisis – that it’s all part of an international conspiracy to take away citizens’ personal freedoms. This is where our TV panelist, mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, ties into the pandemic. Prior to the invention of social media, people wanting the news had to watch CBC, CTV, BBC or one of the U.S. networks. They, in turn, through their broadcast licences, were required to present balanced coverage of both sides of issues.
But social media turned that world on its head, offering the ultimate in consumerism by creating “news” the believer wants to hear. If you look up COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter will remember and send you more such conspiracies. Soon, you’re surrounded by an alternate reality of anti-COVID stories fed to your computer while, if you want more balanced views, you have to go searching for them.
The result is a cock-eyed world where black is white and up is down. It’s evident in the U.S., where a significant portion of the populace believes that Joe Biden won the presidential election only because of massive fraud. No matter how many impartial observers of the election declare there was no evidence of voter fraud, the only source of “truth” for U.S. President Donald Trump loyalists comes from his mouth.
Similar embracing of unreality goes into the belief that COVID-19 is just an authoritarian power grab by governments – in cahoots with the medical community. During the first wave of COVID-19 in Italy, citizens stood outside nightly and beat on pans and pots as a way of thanking frontline health workers.
Attitudes have changed with the second wave as people become fatigued by the effort to fight the pandemic or they have fallen in with the group who thinks the entire crisis is fabricated. Some Italian ambulance drivers report being chased by angry people who claim that when they drive down the street they’re just trying to frighten people to get in line with government policies. Frontline doctors and nurses say they’re being harassed by conspiracy believers.
Personal responsibility has always been more dream than reality, of course. If everyone was honest and honoured their responsibility, we’d have no need for police – or at least we far fewer than we have.
But, ironically, citizens’ refusal to take personal responsibility in helping tame the virus’s spread means that governments must be more restrictive to save the lives of both the innocent and the self-centred.
Yet there are many hopeful signs. I’m amazed to see how many people wear masks in our area, even though there haven’t been many local cases. And there are those Americans so dedicated to their responsibility to vote that they lined up for hours to vote in advance, leading to one of the largest voter turnouts ever.
We’ll never get everyone to take personal responsibility seriously. Still, if enough of us do what’s right, we’ll make those that don’t a sad minority.