Covid and the Selfish Gene: a reflection.

I have been spending a lot of time chatting to people in the last week, both virtually and in person. As I have travelled and met folks, held discussions and meetings, I have been aware of the conflicting emotions which have been evident in what – even in these times – has felt like an exceptional week.

It is a week which has witnessed a growing anger at what may or may not have happened in Christmas parties at 10 Downing Street. I am not going to comment on the politics of all this but having spoken to so many around the issue of bereavement and grief in the past week I do find it appalling that at a time when so many were unable to be with their loved ones, to say goodbye to a mum, dad or husband or wife in the latter stages of their life, when so many of us were experiencing Christmas at a distance from love and belonging, that some people thought it appropriate to party and ‘allegedly’ break the rules.

Alongside this we have witnessed England moving into Plan B in its Covid response but even this serious action which evidenced growing concern about the Omicron strain has been diminished by politicians complaining about loss of ‘freedom’ and the suggestion that we should learn to ‘live with the virus’ which is deemed as equivalent to doing nothing so as to protect various sectors of the economy – all against a backdrop of an increasingly partisan response which has shouted down the clinical and epidemiological arguments.

As I have travelled I have heard comment which suggests that society is over-reacting to Omicron and what is claimed to be a ‘mild-infection’; I have witnessed far too many people choosing deliberately to not wear a mask on public transport or to wear it in a manner which is purposeless.

Then towards the end of the week in Scotland yesterday we had a series of stark warnings from our First Minister and letters sent to the care sector requiring staff to increase their testing in order to protect both those resident in care homes and in the community. It feels for many like an anxious and worrying time. Regardless of the fear and exhaustion which is wholly justifiable it is important to underline that we all of us need to ensure that the access for family and friends to residents in care homes over the next weeks is as normal as possible whilst at the same time keeping people safe from such an infectious variant of the virus. It will be a balance that requires compassion and care, openness, and good communication.

There have been so many other things which have happened in the last week and some of it has evidenced the best of us and some of it certainly the worst of our humanity. I mean what is happening in our society when we have even reached the stage that yesterday (Friday) in response to an inept briefing from Downing Street which suggested that if you sing you do not need to wear a mask, that we have folks trying to enter some major supermarkets arguing that if they sing they are exempt from mask compliance? Stupid certainly and dangerous given the deadly seriousness of the times and indicative of what I would term a growing health narcissism and selfishness in response to Covid19.

Tomorrow is the UN Day which focusses on international and universal health coverage. To be honest it is a day which would normally pass me by but this year it has a somewhat chilling resonance as we face the threat of Omicron. Nearly a decade ago the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a resolution urging countries to accelerate progress toward universal health coverage (UHC) – the idea that everyone, everywhere should have access to quality, affordable health care – as an essential priority for international development. Tomorrow is about raising awareness of the need for strong and resilient health systems across the world.

The failure of the international community in the last year to meet the vaccination needs of developing countries is shameful. Despite much vaunted promises to donate 100 million vaccines to other countries the UK Government has donated only about a tenth of that total. The practical implications of failing to act in solidarity with the world is that new strains of the virus are enabled to develop and eventually come to threaten our own shores and communities. Omicron is the fruit of our failure to ensure that every person benefits from the human right to health and to make sure that no one’s health needs during a pandemic are unmet.

The Covid pandemic has drawn in the world around our table and hearth. We must develop a sense of awareness that pandemic planning is not just about looking after ourselves but recognising the global inter-connectiveness of our lives. Focussing on developing resilience locally and nationally should never be at the price of a withdrawal from international collaboration and cooperation. To do so is naïve and dangerous – we are all in this together. Looking after yourself alone, a health nationalism or narcissism is inherently dangerous and selfish.

When the ethnologist Richard Dawkins wrote ‘The Selfish Gene’ in 1976 he coined a phrase which would not only be influential in genetics but in wider society, not least when he introduced us to the idea of the ‘meme’. I am going nowhere near the technical and scientific debate around his arguments, but it is interesting the extent to which he sparked a debate and whole host of study about the nature of human selfishness. Are we hard wired for survival, to reproduce only those genes that aid our existence, and what is the nature of the ‘selfishness’ that can both preserve and damage living?

I have been reflecting about selfishness a lot this week not least as I have heard some horrendous personal accounts of what life has been like for so many during the pandemic. Are we a selfish society or do we care about others? Certainly, there was a sense at the start of the pandemic of collective solidarity and mutual support. As I sat on trains witnessing individuals who vocalised a refusal to wear a mask with the pride of narcissistic arrogance; as I watched arguments which suggested that the price of older people dying was worth paying for the ‘strong’ to get on with living; as I heard the syrupy justifications of political moral emptiness defend an unwillingness to take hard decisions – the concept of selfishness, of the cult of the self against all others, seemed to dominate my mind.

The next few weeks are clearly going to be immensely challenging. If we are to overcome them then collective compassion in a community which upholds one another strikes me as the only route out of the chaos of selfishness. Commentators are already warning that the public health message is being lost as people seek to restore themselves to the normality of pursuing personal priority. But surely that should encourage all of us, perhaps especially those of us who work in health and care, to point to a deeper truth of what human relatedness is and should be? That putting your ‘self’ second is not a genetic deficit but a humanitarian priority. And that perhaps all this involves us in adopting not a passive acceptance of the negative actions of others but a need to challenge them. In my journeyings in the past week I have witnessed what seem almost to be a desire to be defiant, to be protective of self and personal benefit, rather than an acknowledgement of any desire to protect others. Any society built on reciprocal co-responsibility needs to challenge and call out such behaviours rather than let them slide into acceptance.

I think too often we dance around the edge of politeness when what we need to do is call out inherent selfishness – a defensiveness of self which has become more and more dominant in society during these Covid times.

You probably know the poem of the Persian 14th century mystic Hafiz which although short and simple I think captures what the essence of selflessness is – it is such a selflessness and not a health or personal narcissism , which we need today in great measure to fight a virus that has and is claiming too many, destroying so much, and making far too many consider their self alone as worthy of attention:

The Sun Never Says

All this time
The sun never says to the earth

“You owe me.”

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights
The whole sky.


Donald Macaskill