Human beings have the capacity for great cruelty, and we know all about that. A skim through the paper or a glance at the nightly news is all you need to remind you of man’s inhumanity to man.
What, though, of man’s benevolence to man? We hear much less about that. Coronavirus has brought out instincts far more potent than our worst traits: the impulse to do right by others and the need to play our part. Crisis has, in most of us, hushed selfishness and envy and rekindled old-fashioned sounding but truly timeless values like community, neighbourliness and social duty.
To understand what I’m talking about, just look at Mail Force, a charity set up by this newspaper to secure essential personal protective equipment for NHS staff. I doubt the Daily Mail ever expected to turn itself into an NGO but it is a paper that enjoys a special connection to its readers. It knew without asking that they were worried about their doctors and nurses and knew they wanted desperately to help them. Mail Force was a ship already at full capacity before a single sheet of steel had been welded to the hull.
Mail Force has already seen £1 million worth of PPE handed over to the NHS and total donations exceed £5 million. More than 12,000 Daily Mail readers have donated £500,000 between them, and that’s just through the website. In excess of a thousand cheques have arrived at the registered charity. When need presents, thousands of Mail readers have risen to meet it.
They have not risen alone. Sir Brian Souter, founder of Stagecoach, has stepped in to match their contributions up to £500,000. Sir Brian is just one of the leading UK philanthropists to use his wealth to assist good causes right now. Over the weekend, Harry Potter author JK Rowling donated £1 million to charities Crisis, which helps the homeless, and Refuge, which supports victims of domestic violence. The most vulnerable won’t be forgotten thanks to her generosity.
Businesses large and small are pitching in, too. Mobile giant EE is giving NHS staff free unlimited data until October while Tesco has donated £1 million in cash and £15 million in groceries to food banks.
Edinburgh-based gin distillery Leith Spirits has switched to producing hand sanitiser which it is providing free to frontline health workers and care staff. Asiyah and Jawad Javed, owners of the Day-Today Express corner shop in Stenhousemuir, have been handing out free face masks and antibacterial products to their elderly customers and even delivering to those who can’t leave their homes.
People on modest incomes and those with a fair few pennies, companies with international reach and tiny shops just down the road — all are to be found in this collective effort.
Then there are stories that just floor you. Hassan Akkad was a teacher in Syria until he was arrested and tortured repeatedly for attending pro-democracy marches. In 2015, he made it to Britain and has since become an award-winning documentary film-maker. Only you won’t find Hassan in an editing booth these days: he is a volunteer cleaner at London’s Whipps Cross Hospital, where he scrubs down the Covid-19 wards to make them safe for patients and medics.
‘I feel as though I’m doing my bit and looking after my community in the place I call home since I left Syria,’ he explained. What courage it takes to volunteer for the frontline against a deadly pandemic, what modestly to describe it as merely ‘doing my bit’.
Doing-my-bit-ism is the closest thing Britain has to a national ideology. Until recently, it was fashionable to sneer at our enduring attachment to ‘Blitz spirit’ as self-aggrandising exceptionalism or sinister nostalgia. Commentators linked an inflated perception of our global influence and even the decision to vote for Brexit to a false memory of ‘Britain standing alone’ in 1940. But that is not what most of us have in mind when we talk about Blitz spirit. We are not talking about standing alone but about standing together. Blitz spirit is as much about 1945 and the compassionate society we came together to create in the aftermath of war as it is pride in the stoicism of our parents and grandparents who endured the wrath of the Luftwaffe.
Doing-my-bit-ism is Blitz spirit in action and you see it in the final-year nursing students who have flooded hospital wards, eager to support the health service to which they have dedicated themselves, and in Greenock semiconductor producer Diodes, which has donated 17,000 face masks to medics and carers. You see it too in Zane Powles, assistant headmaster at Western Primary School in Grimsby, who is walking five miles every day to deliver lunches to pupils who rely on free school meals.
Everyone can do their bit, however big or small that is, and we must not lose sight of how much good each of us can do.
Covid-19 brings grave illness and death to the weakest and among its petty malices is turning a hug into a risk and separating families from loved ones in their final hours. Less remarked upon but almost as deadly is the impact on our collective psyche. By trapping us indoors, by shutting our places of work and worship, by evading scientists seeking a vaccine, coronavirus has driven a sense of futility deep into our souls. It has made us feel helpless at a time when we feel the need to help most keenly.
We must resist the spread of despondency as fiercely as we do the virus itself. ‘No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for any one else,’ remarks John Harmon, hero of Dickens’ final novel, Our Mutual Friend. ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ as it says in an even older book.
There are things we can’t control right now but we should focus on the things we can. We don’t have to see our elderly neighbours struggling alone. A phone call or a yammer over the fence means more than you can imagine to someone in solitary lockdown. Next time you go to pick up your shopping, make up an extra bag for that older lady who lives across the street.
Get out the phonebook (younger readers, ask your parents what one of these is) and call round the churches in your community to see which ones are giving out food to the needy, as my local Catholic parish is. A few tins of cheap baked beans and a bag of pasta will set you back a pound in the supermarket but they will make sure one of your neighbours doesn’t go to bed hungry.
If you can afford it, there are countless charities desperate for donations as coronavirus has driven up demand for their services while keeping their volunteers at home. We forget how much we rely on voluntary organisations to take care of the most vulnerable in society but Covid-19 has delivered a sharp reminder — and a smarting rebuke.
Now local and national government must scramble to fill the gap where charities ordinarily operate, overlooked and under-appreciated. We must never again lose sight of the good they do and their importance to keeping this a caring and decent country.
The late President Bush called the United States ‘a nation of community’ made up of ‘a thousand points of light’ — churches, charities, community groups and civic-minded individuals. The coronavirus crisis has taught us that the world consists of millions, even billions, of points of light, a constellation of compassion twinkling away in the darkest times. No one is helpless who is helping to keep those stars burning.