It’s official. We’re experiencing a pandemic – an epidemic spreading rapidly on a global scale. It’s an unsettling development, and it would be easy to cover our ears (along with our coughs) and go about our business. But we aren’t hopeless bystanders in this fight; we can’t stick our heads in the sand like cartoon ostriches and pretend this isn’t happening. As luck would have it, there is a successful strategy we can use – and we must – to flatten the curve and slow the spread of coronavirus: altruism.
You’re probably already familiar with moral altruism, in which a person performs a selfless act to benefit another (such as volunteering at the local food bank or making a charitable donation). In evolutionary biology, however, the definition of altruism is a bit more radical: to increase the fitness of another to one’s own detriment. It is this more costly form of altruism that we are called upon to demonstrate, if we are going to prevent suffering and death on a massive scale. By making a few sacrifices on an individual level, we can increase the fitness of the community as a whole. In the midst of a pandemic, our “community” is nothing short of the entire global population.
Altruism is common throughout the animal kingdom. Unlike their cowardly cartoon counterparts, actual ostriches keep their heads well above ground while engaging in risky, altruistic behavior. They care for their young communally, with just a few designated caregivers raising dozens of offspring that are genetically unrelated to them. Queenless honey bees support the colony through costly foraging and egg-laying, even in the face of imminent collapse. Emperor penguins take turns sheltering others on the outer edges of the huddle that protects them all from freezing to death. Female vampire bats “donate blood” to hungry community members – kin or not. And animal mothers across multiple taxa will selflessly step in to raise an abandoned infant of another species (even defying the sanctity of predator/prey relationships). Humans are no exception; we make personal sacrifices all the time to help our communities, both human and otherwise. If you’re a parent who has hauled yourself out of bed for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night, or you’ve ever tried to take your disgruntled cat to the vet, then you’re already a seasoned pro at this.
With this novel coronavirus outbreak, we’ve been too complacent here in the US, raptly following our news feeds, but not changing our own behavior enough to reflect the severity of the situation. For most generally healthy people, COVID-19 will only cause mild symptoms and resolve without medical care. But even if we’re not at high risk ourselves, we all know and love people who are elderly, immunocompromised, or managing a chronic condition like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. If you’re feeling powerless against this rapidly-spreading foe, you’re certainly not alone. But there’s actually a lot we can do to protect our vulnerable friends and family members, as well as the broader community.
How to be an altruist
If you can, just stay home. This is the silver bullet option that would stop the coronavirus in its tracks if everyone did it. By staying at home, you reduce the number of people you interact with, and therefore slow the spread of the disease (by lowering the R0, or average number of new cases caused by each infected person). But not everyone can stay at home. For so many members of our community – low-income workers who can’t work from home, the un- and underemployed, the undocumented, and the homeless – the ability to self-quarantine is an impossible luxury.
Check your privilege. Many people will still be forced to report to work even if they are feeling sick, because they can’t afford not to. Schools are also closing across the country, placing an added burden on poor families and separating millions of children from their main source of nutrition. Stockpiling nonperishable foods, refilling prescriptions early, and taking unpaid days off to stay home with the kids are not options for the millions of people living with food, financial, or job insecurity. If you’re fortunate to have the option to stay home, take it. If you’re unable to keep the whole family at home, nominate one person to run all essential errands so you limit the number of interactions your household has with the general public.
But don’t sacrifice it all. We are highly social creatures, and isolation comes at a cost. Human connection helps us to manage our stress response, and, ironically, boosts our immune system. Before social distancing recommendations are lifted, you may get bored, or lonely, or feel depressed. There are resources available to help protect your mental health while practicing social distancing. It may be wildly inconvenient and stressful to stay home for two weeks, but consider the countless people who can’t as you undertake this most impactful act of altruism. Whenever cabin fever starts to set in, remember the big picture and try reframing your ability to self-quarantine as the extreme privilege and duty that it is.
Stay out of the hospital. Reschedule any elective medical procedures or routine check-ups for the time being – your doctor is busy right now. Doing your part to slow the spread of coronavirus will also help to keep our fragile health care system from getting swamped by critically ill COVID-19 patients. This also means that there is a much higher chance that there will be an ICU bed available for you should you have a heart attack, get into a car accident, or otherwise find yourself in need of emergency medical care. (Always wear your seatbelt for a little extra altruistic oomph).
Don’t burden the system. Everything is interconnected in our globalized world. The goal right now is to shrink your own footprint as much as possible, freeing up increasingly scarce resources across many sectors. Don’t empty the Rite Aid shelves of face masks; they’re not recommended anyway. Postpone your spring break weekend in Phoenix and try to get some sunlight from home. Don’t order a bunch of random stuff from Amazon (FedEx drivers will get sick too, and delivery fleets are going to be overtaxed). “Don’t burden the system” does not mean going without things you legitimately need; it just requires that you approach your activities, movements, and purchases with intention. If you can wait, then wait, because someone else out there can’t.
Wash your hands. I don’t need to tell you this, but what’s an article about COVID-19 without another reminder about proper handwashing? The only sacrifice here is that you’re probably spending a significantly larger amount of time washing your hands these days. Let’s round up the 20-30 seconds of active scrubbing to a full minute to account for drying, sleeve-rolling, and singing whatever song it is that we’re supposed to sing today. Losing twenty or so minutes of your day to handwashing will cut your comfort re-watch of Parks and Rec by one episode, but it’s a small price to pay.
And here’s a freebie that requires no self-sacrifice whatsoever: don’t be racist. Pandemics and xenophobia go hand in hand. Since news of the coronavirus first came out of China at the end of 2019, racially motivated crimes have increased – especially in countries that are majority white like the US and UK. Fear and anxiety exacerbate racial tensions and stereotypes, leading to increased micro-aggressions, hostility, and outright violence, in this case particularly against those who appear to be of Asian heritage.
Past epidemics have taught us that travel bans may do too little to halt the spread of an epidemic, while doing a lot to fuel xenophobia and stigmatization of foreigners who look a certain way, depending on the epidemic in question. Fear, confusion, and worry are all perfectly normal emotions in a situation like this, but they don’t excuse racism.
Do the right thing
Taken together, these relatively small acts of altruism can add up to big results in the global fight against coronavirus. If we’re all hoping to see our loved ones face to face again soon, we have to put the community’s interests ahead of our own. The epidemic wave will likely ebb in the coming months, and we’ll lean hesitantly back in to business as usual. We can’t predict how this will all turn out, but acting altruistically has one surefire outcome: your future self will take comfort knowing that there are people who survived because of your choice to put others first today. So channel your inner honey bee, vampire bat, or emperor penguin, and take one for the team.