The latest news about COVID-19 in Australia is undeniably grim. Case numbers are disturbingly high in Victoria. New clusters have emerged in New South Wales. And the pandemic that many people thought would last for months now looks like continuing well into next year — and perhaps longer if predictions about vaccine development prove premature. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough, it seems the pandemic has shone a light on a darker side of human nature — a ruthless, primal desire of individuals to meet their own (often illusory) needs, even when this comes at the expense of society’s most vulnerable members.

First we had the frenzied panic buying and toilet-paper hoarding in the early stages of the pandemic. Now we’ve witnessed a frenzied dash to stock up on masks as the Victorian Government’s mandatory face-mask policy comes into effect. On Twitter, people have described scenes of total chaos at retail stores as Victorians “climb over each other” to buy either masks or the equipment needed to make them.

Premier Daniel Andrews has warned retailers against price-gouging amid the mask-mania that has gripped the state. Supermarket giant ALDI was slammed on social media for selling a packet of 50 masks for $69.99, though this turned out to be cheaper than the going rate at many independent pharmacists.

One could be forgiven for thinking this selfish behaviour confirms what Dutch biologist Francis De Waal describes as the “veneer theory” of human civilization: the notion that basic human decency is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation.

But are we really selfish and callous at heart? And what does the COVID-19 pandemic reveal about the basic goodness of human beings?

I recently read philosopher Rutger Bregman’s thought-provoking book Human Kind: A Hopeful History, and it helped me to rethink my own pessimistic view of humanity. Bregman rejects the “veneer theory” of human civilization, arguing instead that human beings are (for the most part) good natured and benevolent. While the media and philosophy present a fairly bleak picture of our shared humanity, a closer look at history and psychology reveal that we do in fact support each other in a crisis, and we all have the psychological resources to be optimistic and selfless in the face of profound challenges.

Bregman even tells the story of “the real Lord of the Flies” — about a group of six Tongan school students who from June 1965 till September 1966 were stranded on a tiny island 300 kilometres from the Tongan capital after their boat was damaged in a storm. Far from descending into a brutal form of tribal life, the boys looked after each other and set up a small commune — complete with a food garden, a water tank, a gymnasium and fire — until they were rescued by a fisherman and taken home.

Indeed, there is no shortage of examples of heroic and selfless behaviour in the midst of the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, there was a steady stream of reports of healthcare professionals working around the clock in China’s Hubei Province to deal with the overwhelming surge of patients infected with the virus. Often these workers lacked adequate personal protective equipment but still continued to care for patients. Many fell ill, and some died. Similar stories have surfaced in countries like the US, where upwards of 800 front-line healthcare staff have died from COVID-19 after courageously caring for others who had contracted the virus.

Closer to home, a record number of volunteers are now working at the Sydney Asylum Seeker Centre — a not-for-profit group that provides for temporary visa holders in Australia. Temporary visa holders are ineligible for the Federal Government’s Job Keeper subsidy and have been among the hardest hit members of the community during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 took hold, the Asylum Seeker Centre fed around 90 families. Now, a team of 240 volunteers take to the roads every day to deliver a fortnight’s supply of food to 500 families across Sydney.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy of biblical proportions. It is a scourge that no one would ever wish on the world.

But there is a deep and uplifting insight about human nature hidden in the endless stream of bad news. We’re not as selfish and ruthless as some might think, and our humanity runs deeper than the “veneer” of civilization.

Xavier Symons

Xavier Symons is a bioethicist at the University of Notre Dame and a 2020 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholar.