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Who’s Responsible When Coronavirus Comes Knocking?

András Vaski 2020.03.20.

As the world is locking down around us, this week’s topic is, of course, coronavirus. Except, instead of talking about infection rates, the quarantine in Italy, or the crashing stock market, let’s discuss how we are dealing with the virus on a societal level. While the other topics are all very important, there are at least a dozen news outlets with wall to wall coronavirus coverage that will give you a live update the moment someone coughs. I would like to focus less on what the politicians are doing, and more on a topic that readers can relate to and actually have some control over.

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Quarantining a nation during a pandemic is an absolutely massive undertaking. You can simplify it to “stay at home”, but in reality, it involves completely upending the regular operations of our society. There are the restrictions on movement and assembly that we normally do not experience in a democratic society, working from home instead of the office, and in many cases, being laid off when your industry is absolutely punted into oblivion (à la tourism in Hungary). Social media has been flooded with a wave of self-styled experts constantly telling you what exactly you should be doing, from “don’t worry it’s just the flu”, to “stay at home or we all die”.

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When you remove all of this noise, it ultimately becomes a question of personal responsibility. Do you, as a senior citizen, stock up on food in advance and stay inside? Do you, as a young individual, refrain from going out for drinks because you may infect your vulnerable older relatives? Do you, as a mother or father, refrain from hoarding ridiculous amounts of toilet paper and medical supplies, so that there is enough for everyone who needs them? These are the questions that we need to be asking ourselves during this pandemic. Because, the aggregate degree of personal responsibility is what will determine which societies survive this test relatively unscathed, and which will suffer unnecessarily.

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When it comes to Hungary, the picture is mixed. There are no concrete statistics available, outside of the official numbers of infected, but based on my personal experiences in the city and the prevailing opinion online, we can construct some sort of a general picture. Contrary to the youth in certain countries who have found this to be the perfect time to travel and party, Hungarian youth have remained rather obedient to self-quarantine. Interestingly enough, most individuals that you will find out on the streets of Budapest right now are retirees! Why this perplexing situation is the way it is, nobody knows, perhaps the older generation of Hungarians is simply too fatalistic for even a pandemic to scare them.

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It is logical that different societies in various parts of the world will handle coronavirus differently. Some societies have intrinsic habits that must be overcome, such as decreasing skin-on-skin contact by stopping customary greetings, while other societies may be more or less agreeable to following a government mandated quarantine than others. South Korea is an example of a country where in addition to the government implementing effective countermeasures on time, its citizens have complied very well with these measures. Political leanings may also play a role, which does make sense as an individual’s views on personal responsibility are often connected to their politics. For example, an interesting poll in the U.S. showed that Democrats are slightly more likely to follow social distancing than Republicans.

Regardless of our differences in opinion, it is important for all of us (especially the elderly) to heed the prime minister’s words, by responsible citizens, and stay at home to protect our society.

In the featured photo illustration: a Hungarian street with the message “Stay Home.” Photo by Zoltán Balogh/MTI


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