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The Seven Deadly Sins of Coronavirus

Blake Lovewell
21st Century Wire

Society is awakening from its slumber. In the UK, July the 4th marked a measure of independence. The government deigned to allow pubs to swing open their saloon doors and let the population soak its worries in the traditional manner. It seems to have been a breaking point for the otherwise impregnable dam of stymieing measures set-up by governments and institutions to hamper freedom in the name of risk-aversion. Now that the pubs are open, there is a feeling that the high-water mark has been reached and the flood waters are receding. This has concatenating effects on society – people feel safer to walk around on the streets, to see friends at close range and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life which for so long had been restricted. Albeit that these ‘new’ freedoms are imbibed with a prohibition-era feeling with sidelong looks at security guards and waiters who occasionally step in to enforce stringent rules dictated from above, lest they lose that precious license to operate and earn much needed incomes.

Thus, as the dust begins to settle, and the narrative shifts to ‘Second Wave’ paranoia, we can begin to look back at the 3 or so months of martial law in the UK. From the inside it has been an isolating experience, we have been forced into virtual realities to feed our social appetite. It is hard to gauge how the wider society is dealing with a massive normative shift. Behavioural changes have been wrought that have not been seen since total wars of the 20th century. New industries have boomed, though it is prudent to investigate too those industries which have burned to ashes. In these great times of change it helps to use a framework to interrogate the wide-reaching shifts in values and behaviours, to better understand what has been going on, and to rise above the tit-for-tat hubbub of the chattering mass of media.

Here we take the old Catholic framework of the seven deadly, or mortal sins – as a tool to examine shifts in values. They are built upon preceding integral character traits as defined by Plato and Aristotle, namely: Temperance, Wisdom, Justice and Courage. Originally attributed to Aurelius Clemens Prudentius and popularised by Pope Gregory, the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ gained popularity in the expanding Catholic Empire of the Middle Ages. We’ll set aside the theological debates over using a Catholic judgement system for now, and simply treat it as a moral exercise to shed some light into the murky miasma of shifting values brought about by ‘the crisis’. It is interesting to note how many of the actions of society line up with the sins. And before we cow our heads too low we will later show that there is reason to hope in the promulgation of virtuous behaviour.

We commence with the sin of Greed. Readily witnessed in the early days of government imposed lockdown was the change in shopping behaviour. Supermarkets were cleared of dry goods and non-perishables. Traditionally this was the realm of the ‘prepper’ – those marginal people who, so enraptured by their belief in a doomsday scenario spend most of their time in preparation, to ensure their survival. The prepper mentality leaked into the mainstream as people hoarded whatever they could get their hands on. It revealed quickly that the ‘next-day supply chain’ model broke down when there was a huge shift in demand. Commercial producers still haven’t caught up with the demand for flour, the bottleneck being the packaging – not the supply itself. There was some kickback to all this hoarding, with people demanding “only take what you need” and to leave enough for others. This moral rule works fine in safe times, where people believe that there is enough to go around. However it breaks down very quickly in panic times, where it only takes one hoarder to trigger another, and the worst of human greed is pushed to the fore. Witness the man buying all of the sugar in the shop, or the lady with trolleys full of toilet roll – all of a sudden viewed as a precious and scarce commodity. More deeply embroiled are those who seek to profit from this by selling those hoarded rolls at a huge markup on the black market. Greed was abundant in those early times and will not be readily forgotten.

Next came the Gluttony. It is defined by over-indulgence. I paraphrase a maniacal megaphone user I witnessed speaking on the subject when he shouted “Nothing soothes the death-anxiety like a sugary, fatty snack”. It is true, we humans being simple creatures derive great serotonin hits from the basest of pleasures such as consumption of sugar. The other means of satisfaction having being denied to us, we turned to what little pleasures we could garner from the only avenues available; the supermarket aisles. Never have the supermarkets been more weaponised on the population. We have long known the dangers of a diet of processed food, and had been told from early on that obesity increases the danger of viral infections to the body. Even still the weakened population fell upon the corporeal pleasures as something of a crutch. Who can blame them? The only mandated activity one was allowed was to visit the church of the Glutton. Even as the churches themselves were closed. Although as we move on Gluttony seems to be one of the lower sins when compared to others.

If you have failed to adhere strictly to the stickers on the ground, if you asked too many questions of a shop assistant or if you venture out without a mask then you will surely have witnessed the sin of Wrath. It is defined as ‘an intense emotional state involving a strong uncomfortable and hostile response to a perceived provocation, hurt or threat’. By acting outside of the ‘rules’ (remember that in England at least, most restrictions are not ‘laws’ but recommendations or rules) has become a mortal sin in the eyes of a few. Those who have quaffed deeply the kool-aid will be singing from the government hymn sheet. Their moral code, underpinned by a new-found adoration of the NHS, is a moral high-ground above those who do not clap, for those who deign to see their friends in the real world, or the “COVIDIOTS” (a hashtag trending on Twitter from the onset of lockdown) who refuse to obey the individuating policies of anti-social distancing. Committing any of these minor infractions brings a world of wrath upon you: I encourage you to test this and see. Stand in front of the yellow line and you will have the forces of hired security demanding that you step back. Admitting to a neighbour that you went to a party will draw ire and in typical English fashion, a stoic silence. Fail to wear a muzzle on the bus and you’ll have eyes burning at you, despite their being little hard evidence behind the benefit of wearing a mask. It seems that following the science only gets you so far, the Wrath is beholden by the devotees of the religion of coronavirus.

This article is written from an English perspective, even though the themes will ring true for many around the world to varying degrees. But in England, more than anywhere, to quote the idiom “A man’s home is his castle”. In times of yore it has been a place to recluse to, to enjoy a little peace and carry out one’s private life. In the new regime, it has become the prison cell into which one is ensconced. Just like any prisoner in a cell, with little stimulation and a hoard of food, one turns to the next sin; that of Sloth. Sloth is a form of laziness or disinclination to exertion. It is a very easy habit to fall into, we have such good entertainment technologies in computers and with online shopping a world of toys can be on your doorstep the next day. But, to quote another idiom: “Habits begin as cobwebs and end as chains”. We have become chained down in our dwellings – held by a concoction of fear of the outside and comfort of the inside. Despite the beautiful English Summer that blossomed before us, all roads lead to home. Sloth is an insidious sin, being very easy to slip into and hard to pull out from. It will be one of the legacies of the lockdown policy that many will lead more sedentary lifestyles, having become accustomed to them. This will have a concomitant effect on health and the economy, with fewer people with the drive to get up and go, to make the world a little better and to multiply that all important productivity.

These months spent at home will have lead many to inspect their immediate surroundings, and find them lacking. Finding ones habitude to be wanting leads to the next sin, that of Envy. Who has not been envious in these times of those with a large garden, with some outdoor shade and perhaps a private swimming pool? The divide between those who dwell in pokey tenements and those in expansive manors has come to the fore. Office workers, who spend many of their waking hours out of the home, have been forced onto the kitchen table – with no recompense from the company for this office space. It is no surprise perhaps then, that many people have re-evaluated their living situation and gazed with invisious eyes to those who can live a more free private life in a walled garden, or more brightly gilded cage. Envy is a corrosive substance with jealousy eating away at the self-confidence of even the strongest spirit. We have come to measure ourselves against others: have we baked as much bread as our friends on social media? Have we perfected that exercise routine and shed pounds? Why are we debt-trapped in a less than perfect living situation? Comparing one’s self with others can be helpful, but without a solid grounding it can be destructive to our autonomy.

Lust is probably one of the better known sins, and is promoted in Western culture through Hollywood, advertising and cultural norms. One can lust for money, for sex, for food and for power. It thrives in the absence of satisfaction so has found fertile fields in the enforced abstinence of recent months. Visits to pornography websites have surged. Many people have been partaking in secretive relationships driven by lust and fear – both more base instincts of humanity. Lust can be seen to have had a role in the hoarding of food, but I would argue it is more readily visible in the governments activity. The lust for power is well documented by those who study the political sphere. We have in the UK had something of a back-room coup; our Prime Minister was taken into hospital, having his phone taken away. It thus fell to groups of advisers and technocrats, ruling through the SAGE group among others, to decide policy and dictate the response to the perceived threat of a novel virus threat. They wasted no time in instituting wide-ranging surveillance powers through ‘track-and-trace’, with proposals to take it further through policies such as a vaccination passport, commonly referred to as ‘Immunity Passports.’ They were helped along their way by a police force of willing authoritarians, who marauded around parks, breaking up small family picnics, issuing fines to innocent walkers who rested too long on their favourite bench to name only a few of their activates. Their job as a municipal official combined with ambiguous rule-making by unelected technocrats gave the perfect framework for the lust for power to flourish. Furthermore, this wave of power wielding does not show signs of abating, even as the public slowly awaken from their slumber.

They awaken to the ‘New Normal’, a normative framework decided from the top down for the purposes of control. It does its work in the background, only poking the tip of the iceberg above the surface to ‘nudge’ policy hither or thither. One very visible manner in which new norms are promulgated is government propaganda. That being slogans, repeated phrases and assumed values which are used in every speech, emblazoned on lecterns at the bully pulpit and even used in mass advertising campaigns – which advertently helped keep the floundering legacy media alive, or at least on life support. The chief among these forced memes being the unabashed worship of the NHS, bringing us to the final of our sins: that of Pride.

Pride is rooted in the characteristics of hubris and overconfidence. It is an unjustified belief in oneself or of an identity. We have had it poured on us from early doors by the government, telling us how great the NHS is for patching us up, how the Great British spirit will carry us through this crisis and how each of us can be a ‘local hero’ by simply sitting on our sofas. They do say though, that pride comes before a fall, and that too much hubris can lead us astray. Could it be that our national pride, freely whipped up as a means of control, could harm us in this instance? Pride can blind us from seeing problems. We could be too proud to admit that lockdown policies might have caused more harm than good, as is the case in nursing homes the world over. We could be too proud to admit to committing most of these seven sins ourselves, or too proud to remedy that. Hubris among the ancient Greeks was seen to have some level of humiliation involved. The government suddenly defining many peoples’ whole livelihoods as ‘non-essential’ is an ultimate act of hubris, or humiliation. And we are left with its by-product of shame. It is a shame which is hard to shake off as even today many activities of self-fulfilment are limited and the regular activity of society is hardly being resumed.

These sins and vices do paint a sorry state of affairs when taken alone. However, they do not exist in solitude; they are meant to help illustrate virtue. It is easy to do down people and their activity, to pick out egregious behaviours among others when times are hard. But I quote here from Sir Julian Rose (speaking on Sunday Wire EP #322) to demonstrate that all is not yet lost:

“We have to take a very positive view of this situation, because actually, in my experience of life, and I’m in my 70s now, I know that when you get a situation like this which is very extreme, it also opens up an opportunity. And when you get a huge hurdle put in front of you, the opportunity that every individual has is of overcoming that hurdle. And that is where we get stronger and deeper in our spiritual views on life, much more able to tackle what we’re going to have to deal with in the coming years.

Never be afraid to deal face to face with a big hurdle when it comes up […]. It is forcing us to go deeper into ourselves, become more creative, become more human, join up with each other and really, go for victory.”

Hard times create strong people, it has long been known. But for those of us who have lived without the spectre of war on our doorstep, we who live in a technologically-mediated service society have not really witnessed ‘hard times’. Perhaps now is that time, where virtues can be hewn from the hard foundations of the social contract. We will examine the Seven Virtues of the Catholic school and how they may positively be applied to society under a perceived coronavirus threat.

Let us begin with Kindness, or in the Church’s favoured latin: Humanitas. Said to be one characteristic that sets us apart from the animal state of being: kindness is part of humanity itself. I believe that just as much as there has been selfishness and greed there has been selfless giving. Food banks in the UK have seen a much greater level of donations during the perceived crisis. This is mirrored with charity donations and volunteer work in the community. Where once we had the state leading the way in caring for the less fortunate through subsidy and service we now have non-state groups such as mutual aid co-operatives springing up in communities throughout the villages and towns of the UK. These pose us a real alternative to the previous frameworks and offer an optimistic view for how we humans can care for one another without relying on authority based institutions. They have more than filled in the gap between needs and supply and will continue to grow, I’m sure.

Speaking of growing, if you have visited the garden center you can’t help but have noticed the sacking of all fruit and vegetable seeds and plants. People have been craving that long-lost contact with Mother Nature and these times have lead many to re-establish that link through growing food. I associate this with some level of Diligence, the correspondent virtue to the sin of Sloth. Growing your own food is harder than buying it, and we will not become self-sufficient from a few tomato plants. It does however induce an ethic of hard work and persistence, of attentive compassion and fosters a sense of achievement when the crop is harvested which is much more than the satisfaction of merely buying the fruit. It is telling that the government originally defined the buying of seeds as ‘non-essential’ and so the act of growing your own became a little English rebellion against them.

As much as there is greed among those hoarders in supermarkets, there is Temperance: the virtue of abstinence. It is one which is easier to manifest when ones freedom is restricted, we can simply do without. We then rediscover the little things in life, the beauty of the countryside, the simplicity of a book, all of which benefit us over the 21st Century opiates offered through the internet. It is my belief that a period of abstinence is a good thing, and that many people will have broken off bad habits like smoking, and taken up good habits such as walking. This is no mean feat when, before this crisis, it was hard to induce people to take such small steps towards their own self benefit. I for one have been abstaining from supermarkets, in part because of their reaction and puissant freedom restrictions in-store, but in part because it is more in line with my values. The period of enforced shut-down enabled a re-calibration of that addiction to the supermarket. The grass is in fact much greener on the other side, one can get fresh produce at open markets and not get suckered into deals on sugary, hollow-caloried products offered by supermarkets, in this manner one can abstain and yet seem to have gained.

This leads to a sense of Purity, the virtue which is sullied by Lust. I shan’t delve into the personal lives and loves of individuals, but suffice to say that it is probably a good thing for people to have had a break from dating apps and hook-up culture. Sometimes we need a little time with just ourselves to find out more who we are, and what we need. This leads into what Sir Rose was saying about going deeper into ourselves. It is precious, this time of relative peace where we can do some soul-searching and it catalyses a strengthening of character, which will be invaluable as he notes, in times to come.

Humility is difficult in this day and age. It is hard for us to cede to others, and we have been given legitimate reasons to deny the authority of some institutions through this period. However, humility includes in its ranks bravery, and I have witnessed this in no ending supply. Be it the bravery of those who report information that counters the populist government narrative, and face consequential censorship and slander for doing so. Or those who bravely go out and do their day job, despite mutterings of dissent. Courage is taking action even with a present threat, so for anyone who had the courage to act beneficently, despite the perceived threat of plague death, you are to be applauded. It is important to be humble and modest, particularly when driven to some degree of stir-crazy by governmental policy.

Contrary to the Wrath of the tutting person in the queue, the stare of the mirthful mask-wearer or the over-zealous police officer stands Patience. Patience is a virtue, as we are taught as children, but it seems to stop being lauded there. It is a virtue worthy in all times, not just in crisis, and it is one that modern society erodes easily. With quick delivery of online services and goods, with instantaneous entertainment of all forms and bodily pleasures widely promoted, it takes a wiser person to pursue patience these days. With time to ones’-self we can pursue that patience. I will not evangelise meditation or yoga, even though they are beneficial. What I would say is that there are techniques, or ways of being which enable a greater patience in ourselves then we can then take more rational decisions and benefit greatly from doing so. Even reading this long-form piece is an act of patience, and if you have made it this far, you are to be congratulated. I encourage you to take the time to reflect on the themes, and will list the sins and virtues at the end for you to ponder and investigate yourself. Patience is the ability to endure, and that is what we must do, we must keep the embers of our spirit alive through the hard times and we will be in a good place to build and succeed in our aims after its passing.

I shall finish with a quote from somebody who knows all too much about the world’s sins, and has been forced to take the helm on many of the virtues: Julian Assange. This quote from him is a call to agency, and a call to act against the forces which seek to keep us trapped, locked-down and in a primal, fear-driven state.

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. […]

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.

The whole universe or the structure that perceives it is a worthy opponent, but try as I may I cannot escape the sound of suffering.

Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.”


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