“In the knowledge that the strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members”

by Erika Vögeli

This is part of the last sentence of the preamble to the Swiss Federal Constitution. And in view of the ongoing corona crisis, one should add: because the welfare of the weak is the welfare of us all. Those who do not close their eyes, ears and heart, will see that the virus is fatal for the sick and the elderly, it endangers human life; its consequences for the health system are dramatic; and we do not yet know whether it will even leave its impact on those who recover. But it is a challenge to us all. The Federal Council is right: the country must pull itself together; the determined solidarity of all of us is needed. At a media conference, Federal Councillor Alain Berset declared the protection of the health of the population to be the top priority in the current situation; he appealed to and called for our solidarity, especially for the protection of the elderly. In this way, he actually reminded us of a basic requirement of human life and coexistence. The protection of life is the reason for and the most important task of human community building and also of the state. We all live in a social context – with our fellow human beings, in society, in our culture, and we can build on the achievements that previous generations have attained for us. The protection of the elderly is therefore a task and an obligation for everyone, because, as Alain Berset reminded us: “They have made this country what it is today. They deserve our respect.”1

With this in mind, the Federal Councillor addressed his call for a sense of responsibility to all our fellow citizens, because, as Alain Berset said literally on Friday: “What counts is not the proclamation of these measures, but the population’s adherence to them for weeks. We must assume our responsibility together. We are all affected. Now we are standing with our backs to the wall, now we have to show what we can do. What can protect us is our behaviour, which will determine whether the measures are successful.”

The Swiss authorities are appealing to the public’s sense of reason. Bearing the history of our country in mind, they are aware that personal responsibility is a foundation on which much of our country’s success is built. But another obligation is freedom – an obligation towards the entirety. As individuals, we are always part of a social entirety; we are unable to survive on our own. From the deepened awareness of this social core and of the cohesion of all human life – and this must or may by no means be taken as purely intellectual – there arises something akin to gratitude for being able to help when our social life is in danger. This is actually the very essence of humanity, and it is precisely in difficult situations like the one we are in, that the fact becomes apparent that mutual help is a fundamental principle of our social life. From a psychological point of view one could add: It is simply a human fact that our mental health goes hand in hand with our capacity for compassion and empathy. Although this fact has been pushed into the background in recent years to the noise of pseudo-economic theories – perhaps especially in the Western media – its accuracy is nevertheless apparent to anyone who is convinced of the equality of value of “all that bears the face of human”2.

In recent days, the authorities have tirelessly been repeating that it is a question of acting immediately in order to, if at all possible, prevent the worst case scenario from occurring, that worst case being: that the health system reaches its limit, practically collapses, that we create a situation in which doctors have to decide who can be treated and who cannot. That would be a disastrous situation for the doctor, it would be a disastrous situation for all carers, it would be a disastrous situation for the patient as well as for his relatives, and it would be a disastrous situation for all of us. It would be a case of human failure leading to unnecessary suffering – and that would reflect on all of us, whether we want to admit it or not.

It is also not the time to have debates about the political background of all these occurrences, whether they stem from an economic or political operation to maximise profits, whether it is even about the introduction of dictatorship, or the introduction of coercive medical measures. If we listen to our doctors and nurses just a little, we know that the problem is real and extremely serious. They are facing a new challenge, and so are all of us. Questions about the origins and contexts of this new virus, questions about better screening and prevention undoubtedly need to be addressed. However, these are questions regarding our attitude to life – concerning all of us. Simply delegating them to “politics”, “the authorities”, “the state” is not enough. It will require a broader, deeper discussion on how we want to shape our life together in the future, after this experience. But in the face of a conflagration it is first of all necessary to concentrate all our efforts on putting out the fire. The clarification of the cause of the fire, the cause of its rapid spread and the consequences for prevention as well as better preparation for such scenarios will be due once we have solved the first task: to protect life, protect public health. This is where we are all called upon.

Anyone who reads and sees the reports from Italy or from the Canton of Ticino knows: The situation is extremely serious. Let us all do what is now sensible and necessary. It is a joint task for all of us, for everyone, whether old or young, short or tall. And if we see the problem in this way, it will be easier. If I stay at home, I am not only doing it for myself, but also for my fellow men, I am contributing to a task which we can only solve together. In this case, I am not alone. I feel connected with others through the desire to protect life, to help prevent as much suffering as possible.

Let us be creative! In fact, there are already numerous examples of such creativity. Be it the placards that offer help, be it the people who stepped out onto their balconies and with a joint applause thanked all those working in the health sector, be it the Italians who started singing on their balconies – joined their neighbours in singing old familiar songs on their balconies –, be it the children who take their grandparents’ shopping list and then deposit the shopping in front of their doors, the neighbours who do this for elderly inhabitants of the same house, and many more examples of the kind. Perhaps we know people in the nursing professions who are at the end of their tether and could use the same help: someone to do their shopping, or to take a basketful of dirty laundry off their hands and return it washed and ironed. And for older and overworked people, the following applies: Let us learn to accept help – this also is a contribution to mutual help.

Nobody wanted this situation. There is no question that it can cause great economic damage. But perhaps in the next few weeks, we will learn something that will also contribute to solving the questions that will arise because of the pending economic problems. Several reflections expressed against the background of possible economic consequences miss the reality of our health system, namely proposals to isolate only the risk groups in order to allow the economy to run unhindered, to bring about the endemic infection in the rest of the population as quickly as possible, so that we can then move on to daily routine. But the reality of our health system is becoming increasingly clear: The number of people already infected now is taking us to the edge of what is possible. If much more happens too soon, it will certainly collapse. And let us remind the younger smart alecks of Federal President Simonetta Sommaruga’s words: In that case there would be no doctors or nurses to treat other emergencies – from heart attacks to strokes, oncological emergencies, etc. – and also for accidents, because the doctors and nurses would be ill themselves, and there would also be no more room in the hospitals. If we believe that we can escape the logic of human coexistence, we are wrong – it will still remain the same. And because it remains, so does the following conclusion: to act sensibly, to help each other, to keep others in mind – all these are human abilities which make us richer ourselves. Common sense and the common weal may be words less frequently used in recent times – and yet, as said before, their meaning is rooted in the human coexistence, which would not be possible at all without cooperation and mutual help. Anyone who has at all followed the worldwide exchange of researchers and physicians in recent weeks has seen an impressive example of what human cooperation can achieve. •

1  Quoted after “BaZ am Abend” of 19 March 2020
2  See: Adler, Alfred. Menschenkenntnis (Understanding Human Nature) 1927/1988, p. 198 of the German edition

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