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University expert calls for collective action against COVID-19 including following the law

Blessing alone: Standing in the window of the library of the Apostolic Palace overlooking an empty St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis blesses the city of Rome March 15, still under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: CNS

AS medical experts are calling for social isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19, how can each of us play our part?

After all, we now realise that individuals who ignore the calls can make the spread worse for others.

“The responsible thing is to do your part in the collective strategy,” Australian Catholic University Philosopher associate professor Stephanie Collins said.

“For Australians, that means taking personal responsibility for following government advice.”

Melbourne-based Dr Collins studies collective action and group ethics and says the spread of COVID-19 challenged the “individualistic” way we were accustomed to thinking and acting.

“This approach (collective action) is very different from an approach that thinks only about your own individual self-interest,” she said.

“That latter approach might lead to panic-buying, for example.

“But if you have enough groceries for a few days, then your part of Australia’s collective strategy is to socially distance yourself.

“The advice we’re hearing from Australian medical authorities is to avoid crowded areas.

“Running errands for older people is another way you can help.”

In her 2019 book, Group Duties: Their Existence and Their Implications for Individuals, Dr Collins wrote that moral duties were regularly attributed to groups – we might hear that the United Kingdom had a duty to defend human rights, that environmentalists had a duty to push for global systemic reform, or that humanity had a duty to eradicate poverty.

But COVID-19 is already stretching the boundaries in the way groups behave – including entire nations – as they try to limit the virus spread.

Terms such as “social distancing” and “self quarantining” are new to most people, and require measured explanation.

“I do think our leaders could be doing more to calm people and to clarify what exactly is required for ‘social distancing’,” she said.

“A lot of policies are being implemented suddenly, such as the 14-day quarantine for incoming arrivals from overseas.

“This is completely understandable, but it leaves people feeling anxious and confused.

“That anxiety needs to be addressed.”

As a society, Dr Collins said there would be ethical lessons to be learnt about what we valued and where we placed our priorities.

“I hope we will look back and say ‘We came together as a society’ – not physically coming together, obviously – but psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually coming together,” she said.

“Thinking as one team rather than the more individualistic way we are accustomed to thinking.

“I hope we will learn to value and prioritise the most vulnerable people – people who are unwell, unhoused, and who do not have a reliable income.

“I hope that we will prioritise putting in long-term systems to protect these people from risks to their lives and livelihoods.”

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