Doing Nothing in the Time of COVID-19
In the wake of COVID-19, memes asserting that, for the first time in history, we could save the world by doing absolutely nothing went (ahem) viral. The notion that one can achieve a great good by doing bugger all is blindingly attractive. How cool would it be if heroism not only begins at home, but gets to stay there, putting its feet up, watching Netflix, and occasionally donning a mask to pop out for emergency pizza? Not all heroes get to wear masks or stay at home though, because not all heroes can afford masks, let alone the privilege of social-distancing or a home in which to lockdown. Many live in small cramped spaces and/or desperately relying on low incomes from manual labour, such as driving a bus, stacking shelves, or delivering food parcels to those of us staying at home doing nothing (hi!).
But what is it to do nothing? The Bhagavad Gītā teaches that every inaction [akarma] involves action [karma] and vice versa (IV: 16 & 18). Its undergirding tenet, namely that ‘action is better than non-action’ (III:8), is a thinly-veiled attack on the Buddhist ideal of doing nothing, on the grounds that ‘one cannot attain freedom from the results of action by abstaining from actions’ (III:4). The Gita thus seeks to subvert ontological distinctions between doing and allowing, performing and refraining, fulfilling and neglecting, etc. Indeed, in his Meditations (Book IX, § 5), Marcus Aurelius contends that ‘you can also commit injustice by doing nothing’. But this blurs the distinction between doing one thing by doing another as a means, and doing one thing in doing another. In certain contexts, not going out just is protecting your community, while not social distancing or wearing a mask is allowing the virus to spread. As the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe puts it, an action may have many different descriptions, and we may be ignorant of some of its most crucial ones — both positive and negative.
The UK Government’s guidance of March 23rd propounds that ‘the single most important action we can all take in fighting coronavirus is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives’. Its slogan ‘stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives’ and accompanying hashtag, #StayHomeSaveLives, are…