COVID-19: Testing the Strength of the Social Contract

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COVID-19: Testing the Strength of the Social Contract

The world is in a panic and in isolation due to the outbreak of the highly contagious virus known as the coronavirus or as COVID-19. The novel Coronavirus is a strain of the coronavirus which has never been identified in humans before. This virus can cause illness that range from the common cold to much more severe illnesses and can lead to death. The origin of the virus was in Wuhan, China and has been spreading around the world from there. As the virus spreads across the world at an alarming rate, it has stoped the distribution of goods and business across the world stunting economic growth. In fact, it has affected globalization so severely that it has caused economic collapse. But, for the average person, the impact on the stock market is not something front and center in their mind. Rather, fear of contagion and the question of how to self-isolate while maintaining a steady income and assuring a person has everything they need to survive is what is of top priority for those who are taking this pandemic seriously. The panic maybe not having everything at hand can be observed on the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies that are barren due to excessive purchases. Most stores are completely out of things like hand sanitizer, bleach, bottled water, and toilet paper. And those that still have supplies are putting up signs that limit purchases per person. Other items like meat, canned goods, dried noodles, and frozen foods are also leaving stores at an alarming rates in grocery carts that are filled to the brim.

If we are dictating how much each person needs by how long they will be at home, lets say a person wants to stay at home for 1 or 2 weeks, in that case, does a single individual need several bottles of hand sanitizer? Does a family of four need a cart worth of potato chips? Or does a couple need 15 bottles of alcohol?

What happens when someone else who cannot work from home does not find hand sanitizer at the store? What can others, who were just able to begin purchasing groceries, now do when the most affordable and non-perishable foods are completely sold out?

People who wipe out the stores of staple foods to overstock their homes are understandably afraid. But, now, people who have nothing to buy are vulnerable. During this time of fear and crisis, humans naturally begin to think of themselves, only of themselves, and forget of their fellow citizens. Purchasing what is unnecessary potentially hurts others, which in a situation like this one, actually hurts themselves. Meaning, when that person buys all of the hand sanitizer and goes home to isolate, and when another person cannot buy hand sanitizer and have nothing to clean themselves with at work, they become more vulnerable. And if that person at work gets the coronavirus and interacts with others, more people become ill, extending the time of panic, increasing chances of others getting ill and ultimately hurting the individual hoarding in the first place. This cycle of self-destruction justifies the reasoning of the social contract, the abstract agreement between state, individual, and fellow citizens.

Whether we take the interpretation of the social contract from Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, there is always agreement in that man secures preservation by submitting himself to authority, being the state. In all interpretations, especially Locke's and Rousseau's, we see the importance of fellowship, general will, and mutual assistance. An agreement is made between citizens of a state when the social contract is made with the state. While it is agreed by these three philosophies that man is selfish and is concerned about himself, it is also understood that when entering the social contract, the well-being of the citizens who have entered the same contract is ultimately in each individual's best interest. In Book 1, Chapter 6 of Rousseau's Social Contract, he makes this conclusion quite clear, "Finally, in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one. And since there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right that he would grant others over himself, he gains the equivalent of everything he loses, along with a greater amount o force to preserve what he has." Since each individual places their rights within a pot filled with that of other's who have as well in order for them to be protected and for preservation to be achieved, it becomes that when anyone's rights or preservation is not accomplished, it will damage the condition of the other. Therefore, it actually become self-interested to care about others. Whether you believe this care should be derived from morality, fraternity, or self-preservation does not matter. It is the conclusion, that in being part of this social contract, as long as an individual is rational, well-being of all is important, "As long as several men together consider themselves to be a single body, they have but a single will, which is concerned with their common preservation ad the general well-being." (Rousseau, Book IV Chapter 1) As per this agreement we have all entered, the hoarding behavior and panic shopping being exhibited now is unreasonable. It demonstrates a deterioration in our social fabric and unity.

COVID-19, like anything else that places societies in states of emergency, is testing not only our physical strength, but also our social one. Is the social contract and citizen unity in each country strong enough to withstand the pressure and fear of a pandemic? Right now, it does not seem so. It may be because this pandemic came to us in a time of political change for a greater part of the world. Or, perhaps, globalization has made single countries less united by weakening the contrast of "self" versus the "other". Rather, it could be that the ties of the social contract was not as powerful as we initially assumed, our self-preservation nature can only be overpowered to an extent, that being until we feel constant physical threat.

Whatever may be the reason we observe behavior unaligned to that of what our social contract dictates, I believe it is crucial in these times to return to the power of general will and care of fellow citizens. There is no reason we should not be cautious of how many people we come in contact with, using gloves or masks in public, and only taking what we need. We need to take responsibility of what we do and be willing to take those serious measures to protect ourselves in order to protect our fellow man. Prejudice towards those who do take precautions, such as staring at people who are wearing masks, should not be a custom we partake in. Instead, let's take pride in temporarily isolating ourselves and not carelessly advocating for a continuation of large events. It is for the good of us, as a whole and as an individual. It is for the care and love of humanity. Locke in Chapter 9 of The Second Treatise of Civil Government he describes why we go through the sacrifices and trouble of being part of society which forces us to express unnatural qualities, he writes, "This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property."

As part of a civil society, as part of a country, as part of the world, lets each do our part, however troublesome or annoying, to assure mutual preservation and general well-being.


[All Rousseau quotes comes from a print version translated by Donald A. Cress and published by Hackett Publishing Company]