by Anna Woźniak
The recent coronavirus crisis has instigated a lot of speculation about its future consequences in the political, economic and social fields. A number of thought leaders embarked on the project of predicting the direction of changes resulting from the crisis and of actively influencing this direction. “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change,” wrote Milton Friedman in 1982. “When that crisis occurs – Friedman continued – the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
These words take on a new meaning in the present situation. It is no surprise that Naomi Klein, otherwise fervent Friedman’s opponent, uses precisely those quotations to argue her case. More specifically, she expresses hope that ideas that will prevail after epidemic will be “sensible and fair” rather than “predatory” ones. Others follow. Alain Badiou wishes that this epidemic interlude will bring “new figures of politics” and “new political sites,” while Slavoj Žižek goes even as far as hoping that the present crisis will see the idea of communism reemerge.
What all these thinkers have in common is a desire to see something better developing from the present breakdown. Although they may have a different understanding of the “better,” they all share a conviction that the desirable change results from the influence of some sort of idea. The subtle undertone that underlies this position is a notion that in the times of crisis, the fundamental agent, whose role is decisive in the determination of the direction of the change, is an idea. Consequently, as ideas are spread through experts, scientists, philosophers and activists, all of them are seen as playing a primordial role in shaping the so-called public opinion.
Inspired by the good
The present coronavirus crisis has revealed that there is a modus operandi animating the public life different from the idea-driven vision. It turns out that not all are determined by ideas. Since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, a number of people have not been waiting for new ideas to come, but instead, they have acted out of their own deliberation about what they consider as good. Armies of volunteers all over the world have been mobilized to help the most vulnerable.
In Poland, an estimated 100,000 people have volunteered so far to prepare and distribute non-contact food parcels and warm meals for senior citizens and people in quarantine, to collect food and necessary hospital equipment, to prepare virtual workshops, helping children with homework, as well as to provide psychological support to those in need. As in other countries, the nursing homes are the epicenter of the pandemic. Both, the infected residents and staff members have been isolated, while others were quarantined. A lot of personnel has resigned for the fear of infection. The shortages in the workforce were offset by the work of volunteers, especially religious, sisters and friars, with medical qualifications. Altogether 400 sisters and 150 friars undertook work in quarantined nursing homes, caring for the infected and quarantined residents.
As the senior citizens are the most vulnerable in this crisis, a number of volunteering initiatives have been designed especially for them. The football club Legia Warsaw has re-organized its facilities and resources to serve as a help center, providing hot meals to the elderly. Needs of war veterans were given special attention by the participants of the Territorial Defense Forces and scouts, who have offered their assistance with distribution of food.
Another vulnerable group consists of the healthcare staff fighting at the first line of the pandemic battle. Not only have they been provided by volunteers with hot meals and all the necessities, but also their children have been given extra care, also in the area of education. Over 100 pupils, students and teachers have committed themselves to teach healthcare workers on-line courses in science.
The bottom-up initiatives proliferate with creativity, in spite of the fact that those involved are oftentimes in danger of being infected themselves. Those actions show that the “sensible and fair,” the “new” and the “commune” is not the matter of future ideas, but of the present reality. The change is not to come, but it has already taken place.
Waiting for the future
According to the idea-driven vision of change, the crisis hits, people get incapacitated while waiting for the “new normal” to emerge. And indeed this narrative holds true for some. In an online interview, Marc Jacobs, a fashion designer, admits he is not working on a new collection, because “until we create a new way to work or a new end to work towards, we really have nothing to do.” This is because, according to Jacobs, people haven’t yet figured out what the new idea of creativity looks like.
The mechanism of the voluntary action escapes this work impasse. Voluntary, from Latin voluntarius, means “of one’s free will.” What hundreds of thousands of volunteers have proven is the fact that people are not always attracted or activated by ideas, but that they are also inspired by the good they can contribute to. It helps them to transcend themselves and, precisely, to free themselves from the paralyzing grip of waiting for external ideas to come. The volunteers’ reaction to the COVID-19 crisis makes it very clear that people are active by nature, they desire good and are capable of acting intelligently to achieve it.
This ancient Aristotelian vision of a person is seeing a new revival in the coronavirus-affected reality. It is not exposed by the intellectual leaders, for in a society governed by the voluntary action, there is no need for idea-boosters. The questions that still remain open are: “which good?”, “whose good?”, “how do we define the good?”. These are all relevant issues that do not offer easy answers. However, defining the future in terms of questions about the “good” rather than in terms of “ideas” makes this future open-ended, not determined by any solutions pre-designed by the thought leaders of various proveniences.
Seeing people as capable of voluntary actions means comprehending them as capable of making individual, intelligent choices. And for those, who comprehend themselves as such, the post-coronavirus change has already taken place.
Anna Woźniak is a lecturer at the Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland.