Virus and values

South Africa - Johannesburg - 19 March 2020- Informal Settlement residents in the Vaal find it difficult with dealing with the Corona Virus outbreak as they do no have water , some have to deal with dirty water and some residents have to share one tap with a lot of people. Picture:Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA)

A crisis reveals so much of who we are. It can bring out the best in us. It can bring out the worst in us. Apart from posing a threat to our health and safety, a crisis may also present a test for our values. It is no different in our confrontation with Covid-19. The spread of the corona virus demonstrates our physical interconnectedness while at the same time it reveals how we respond to the relatedness of our human existence. The physical side of the corona confrontation is a health issue, the relational dimension is a moral one. However, both are contained in the frailty of our human existence.

While not equipped to speak science to virology, I want to share a few thoughts on how Covid-19 confronts our sense of morality. It is widely accepted that humanity holds five moral values in common: honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion. While we can add some to the list or find different words for each, these five values contain the essence of what makes us human in our relatedness. These values describe our aspirational beliefs about human behaviour and determine how we prefer to live and relate, our sense of what is right or wrong in a particular context and the decisions that we make as a result. When we uphold them, we do better together. When we violate them, we pay the price together.

Because of the relatedness of our existence, we are ever being called upon to be honest, respectful, responsible, fair and compassionate in our dealings with one another. The demand for being so connected to others seems even bigger now that a dangerous and fast spreading virus runs through the channels of our physical connectedness. Every contact point with others may become a question of how to behave, how to relate and what to decide.

The value of honesty, for example, now calls upon us to think carefully about the information we rely on and share, to be transparent about our own state of health and truthful about our whereabouts in potentially risky contact with others. The value of respect now especially calls upon us to treat everyone else – irrespective of their standing or influence – with dignity, to make their health and safety a priority as if our own and to honour their personal space through social distancing.

Responsibility means that we think carefully about what we decide and do, especially in view of the impact that it may have on others. While we need to care for and protect ourselves we have to consider the rightful interests of others too.

What does fairness mean when we fear scarcity and shop for supplies? What does it mean when we stock medical supplies which are now more needed in healthcare facilities? What does it mean when decisions are pending about salary adjustments and potential lay-offs?

Compassion speaks to our ability to watch out for others and care about their particular needs and circumstances. What we in South Africa so far mainly witnessed about Covid-19’s impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses, and how people have been challenged to manage the tension between social distancing and mutual care, may become more intensively part of our daily existence in the time to come.

What I have written above, about the virus – values connection, may confront most of us in our daily conduct as we go about life, work and relationships. It certainly requires from us to be mindful and sensitive while we care for self and stay in touch with others. It gets more challenging, though, when the essence of your job is to make decisions in an organisational or professional context.

In an organisational context, boards and executives in particular, are confronted with uncomfortable decisions at the moment. While operational continuity may be at risk, human dignity is of equal importance. What does it mean then to be honest, respectful, responsible, fair and compassionate with employees, customers and suppliers, to name the most prominent stakeholders, when navigating your way through the pandemic’s potentially devastating impact?

While there are several professional contexts that we can potentially think about, we have to spare a thought for the healthcare profession in a time such as this. While duty positions them in eye of the corona storm, they have to deal with the anguish of worried and potentially infected people, treat every patient with equal respect, provide a clinically safe treatment space for the sick and the healthy, make difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce medicinal and other treatment resources, and maintain their own capacity for nurture at the same time.

Corona has no awareness of itself or its impact. It simply flourishes where the ecosystems of nature and humanity allow it to do. However, it does awaken a new awareness about our essential vulnerability and inevitable interdependence as a human community. While we stay hopeful for a scientific breakthrough to put the virus in its place, we’ll have to rely just as much on our capacity for values-based living and relating to carry us through.


Professor Arnold Smit is an Associate Professor of Business in Society at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).