Albert Einstein liked to say there are only two things that are infinite – the universe and human stupidity.
He just wasn’t sure about the universe.
In these times when it feels like our universe is coming to an end, the smartest man in history has been proven right again.
There are no limits to human stupidity – or selfishness.
So when this pandemic is over and we have buried the dead and begun the slow and painful revival of the economy, lest we forget:
- The jerk who last week sauntered into my son’s café in Melbourne, ordered a coffee and then proceeded to the bathroom and stole a dozen toilet paper rolls
- The grotesquely obese couple and their drooling teenage son who waddled into my local supermarket early one morning, pushed the elderly and the needy out of the way, snatched three large packs of toilet paper and paid for them separately
- The US hospital worker suffering fever and respiratory coronavirus symptoms who defied instructions to self-isolate and instead attended a private invitation-only event, infecting others
- The bumbling and lethargic reaction of a host of so-called world leaders whose reluctance to act quickly and decisively will cause thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Feel free to add your own examples.
It’s an almost infinite list that grows by the hour, a dark catalogue that confirms how that most basic instinct underpinning the human condition – self-interest – takes over when the right amount of pressure is applied.
So let there be no doubt. We have looked in the mirror and seen our true selves staring back.
It has not been a pretty sight.
But as the politicians will undoubtedly remind us, we need to get over the ugliness for there are lessons to be learned.
One of them, surely, is that it is time for us to stop bowing and pandering to China, the nation that lied to the world about the coronavirus when it first appeared and whose subsequent cover-up helped ignite this global pandemic.
For years the West, including Australia, has preferred to look the other way as Chinese authorities stripped their citizens of basic human rights.
The world, of course, has suffered plenty of brutal totalitarian regimes.
But none have ever combined such dedication toward silencing dissent with sophisticated electronic surveillance and personal monitoring.
Terrified of the consequences of intervening, we have muttered and stammered and offered a few lame, token protests.
In doing so, we have become nothing more than the neighbours who lock their doors, close their windows and turn up the television volume whenever the thug next door begins his nightly wife-bashing routine.
Even now, as the virus spreads around the world, linking its origins back to a “wet market” selling fish and other live animals in Wuhan – the capital city of Hubei province – is accompanied by accusations of xenophobia and racism.
Better to gush and slavishly praise the Chinese for erecting two 1000-plus bed hospitals in little more than a week than point to the crippling cover-up that took place in the critical weeks before and after Christmas.
Typical of the politically correct reaction is a recent article on The Conversation website by Rachel Clamp of Durham University that drew parallels between coronavirus and the Black Death of the 14th century.
Linking the persecution of Jews during the Plague to a host of bizarre Internet conspiracy theories about COVOID-19, Ms Clamp claimed – on the basis of a few isolated incidents and a drop in patronage at Chinese restaurants – that Asians around the world were becoming the targets of racist attacks.
“Our seemingly instinctive desire to scapegoat inevitably creates an epidemic of misinformation more potent than the virus itself,” she wrote.
“As the coronavirus continues to spread, lessons from the past remain an important tool for preventing further racist and xenophobic attacks.”
- Related: These are the racist slurs being hurled at Chinese-Australians during the virus crisis
- Related: Australian leaders call out racism, misinformation
Indeed, lessons from the past will be important tools for dealing with the future.
So lest we forget the doctors who were reprimanded by Chinese authorities when they first began to warn colleagues that they had identified a new virus.
Lest we forget the late Li Wenliang, the doctor accused of “rumour-mongering” and “illegal behaviour” and whose warnings about COVID-19 were dismissed or minimised for valuable weeks after the outbreak first appeared.
Dr Li, whose wife is due to give birth in June, died in early February after contracting the virus from a patient he was treating.
Lest we forget growing evidence that the first appearance of COVID-19 was detected as far back as the middle of November and that Chinese authorities, having delayed warning Wuhan’s 11 million residents to take precautions, only began shutting down the city on January 23.
Had the Chinese government acted earlier instead of concerning itself with appearances – the outbreak coincided with China’s annual meetings of People’s Congresses around the country – the world would have had more time to take stock and prepare.
But then, as we have all been reminded in recent weeks, self-interest remains at the core of the human condition.
It’s something those of us who survive the coming months will most certainly not forget.
Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine