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We’ve started to confuse doing nothing with doing something brave

The lead-up was hardly auspicious, but this year’s Olympics felt more moving than ever. For me, what this came down to was that it was exhilarating to see people doing things, and doing them spectacularly, when for the past 18 months we’ve been told the best thing we can do is nothing. To be clear: thank goodness for that! Lockdowns remain a critical tool in curbing the spread of COVID-19, and mitigating the load carried by healthcare workers.

Yet somewhere along the way, we started to confuse doing nothing with doing something brave.

If humility is still in short supply, there’s always competitive sport.

If humility is still in short supply, there’s always competitive sport.Credit:Getty Images

This elision of “sensible” and “heroic” is a logical extension of social media’s core tenet: expressing yourself through posting is the same as protesting, or anything else that requires actual expenditure of effort.

The latest example I’ve seen of this phenomenon came in a widely circulated opinion piece in an American newspaper. It was about how uniquely furious the writer was that half of American adults have not been vaccinated when they have had the opportunity to do so. Anger, the writer argued, was the least we the vaccinated could do.

This rankled me. Anger is not an action. It is also exquisitely pointless, as emotions go. Am I thrilled that there are millions of Americans who are refusing vaccines, forsaking not only the chance to save their own lives but also to acquire a pair of AirPods – the latest government incentive to increase uptake? No. Do I occasionally curse said population for foisting new variants, tedious and terrifying in equal measure, on us all? Yes. I would like to think, though, that I am not yet so far gone in my moral indignation that I mistake this anger for any kind of productive gesture. It is, in fact, the opposite of productive – akin to scrolling Twitter, or organising a child’s Lego collection, for sheer time wasted.

Inertia brings moral clarity, in which this pandemic has been awash. In the US, we all know someone who boasts about how they haven’t left their house in six months. They’re not immunocompromised, but they wanted to take social distancing more seriously than everyone else. When the Washington, D.C. mask mandate was lifted, there was a loud contingent who declared they wouldn’t be taking their mask off, no matter what the authorities said. (There were also people, still more annoying, who called masks an impediment to their freedom.) As the virus evolved, and the announcement came that we were once again required to wear masks, this same crew crowed that they’d never taken theirs off.


For everyone who did it, staying at home has involved real sacrifices, and COVID’s meandering path means we must continue to make them. And yet surely leaving the house as an essential worker, to stack shelves in a supermarket, clean a hospital, drive a rubbish truck, is harder? And surely at this stage, we’ve all recognised that luck – born in the right place, not breathed on by the wrong person – plays an outsized role in our health outcomes.

If humility is still in short supply, there’s always competitive sport. For us lucky ones stuck at home, much of life is now literally “phoned in” – but you can’t Zoom your way through 100 metres of hurdles, and no amount of email will help when you’re flinging yourself between uneven bars. When the time comes, and when it’s safe to do so, let’s all reclaim the art of doing things. It’s the least we can do.

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