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Will coronavirus make for a kinder society?

By Mark Andrews | Features | Published:

The Queen spoke for many when she addressed the nation, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Captain Tom Moore has captured the mood of national unity and kindness with his fundraising efforts

"We will meet again," she said, evoking the message of national unity that Vera Lynn conveyed during the Second World War.

It certainly seems that the virus and the resulting lockdown has helped bring together a nation which, before the pandemic, appeared to be increasingly polarised: north v south, urban v countryside, metropolitan v provincial. And that's before we even get to the dreaded B-word.

But with the outbreak of the virus, at least for a time, it seemed like we were really all in this together. The Thursday night 'clap for carers', window posters thanking workers in essential services, and political opponents sending the Prime Minister good wishes during his spell in hospital were all symbols of a mood that we were genuinely 'all in this together'.

Captain Tom Moore, the Second World War veteran who raised £32 million for NHS charities by walking 100 laps of his garden in the days before his 100th birthday, perhaps summed up the national mood of gratitude towards those who put their lives on the line to help others during the crisis.

Closer to home, our newspapers have reported almost daily events of acts of kindness, be it volunteers making up protective equipment, charities pulling out all the stops to help people with mental health problems, or businesses doing their bit to help the most vulnerable members of society.

Professional footballers, often accused of gilded lifestyles, have shown their concern for their communities by using the interruption to the season to help the most vulnerable.

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And it seems the public has picked up on this change in the national mood. The Office for National Statistics' Health and Wellbeing Survey, published on May 22, suggested that the pandemic was making us kinder as a nation. Of 2,010 adults questioned as part of the study, 42 per cent believed that Britain was somewhat or very kind before the pandemic, but some 61 per cent believed the country would emerge kinder once the crisis was over.

The same survey also showed that while just a fifth of people considered the county to be united before the outbreak, half of those questioned believed Britain would emerge from the pandemic united as a nation. The poll was less positive about the prospect of greater equality, though: it found that before the lockdown, 15 per cent of the population considered Britain to be an equal society, with 22 per cent believing it would be afterwards.

Community

A separate survey of 2,000 parents, carried out by the Channel Mum website, found that the lockdown has also strengthened family bonds. It found that four in five of those who took part believed it had brought their families closer together. Furthermore, just under two thirds of parents believe the crisis has made their children more ‘community minded’, with 53 per cent going out of their way to help friends and neighbours. Of those, 73 per cent had picked up groceries for vulnerable people, while more than half had collected medication for frail neighbours.

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Siobhan Freegard, the website's founder says: "Being forced to halt our busy lives and spend time together in quarantine has made many of us consider what’s really important, like children, parents and the community they are part of.

“Despite the dreadful toll the pandemic is taking, people are becoming more thankful for the small pleasures in life. Coronavirus may well see us emerge a kinder community and more thankful for the things we enjoy in life.”

But what is it about the coronavirus pandemic which is bringing about these changes in behaviour?

Eva Krockow, assistant professor at Leicester University, says adverse circumstances, trauma, and suffering create a novel living situation for many individuals, which then appears to warrant exceptional behaviour.

"Surprisingly, a vast body of psychology research shows that adverse circumstances and severe trauma can indeed bring out the best in people," she says.

Impact

She points out that the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Centre in New York led to a surge in people seeking to help others, and that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, charitable donations for the New Orleans victims reached unprecedented levels. The bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria in 2009 led to a sharp increase in blood donations.

More interestingly, she suggests that people's desire to help in the aftermath of such disasters may go far beyond a desire to help people get back to the situation they were in before, and can have an impact over the longer term, far beyond the context of the original disaster.

"Research conducted after a destructive storm in Belgium, for example, showed that it wasn’t just local acts of kindness towards the storm victims that increased after the disaster," Krockow adds.

"Instead, a more general surge of altruism was observed and people were found to be more generous at a global scale.

"The amount of charitable donations for the unrelated fight of an African famine by Belgian citizens peaked shortly after the disaster. It thus appears that one-off emergencies can have large psychological spill-over effects and boost the overall levels of kindness both locally and internationally."

In an article in Psychology Today magazine, Krockow adds that the current trends for mutual support seem to follow a general psychological pattern and may be motivated by a desire for survival and the wish to create a better world in the aftermath of the disaster.

Whatever the reasons, if the coronavirus epidemic results in a kinder, more generous society, it will show that even this darkest of clouds contains something of a silver lining.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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