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The Worst of Instincts

April 17 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian tesfaye (christian. is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling. )

A crisis presents a test to society and individuals, and the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is doing just that. It is showing us which economies work better and which are too speculative. It is laying bare how much the liberal world order has eroded and been replaced by the pragmatism of nationalism and how nations that are considered capable and resourceful are, at times, unprecedentedly vulnerable.

Plagues have historically been tools that substantially alter economic and political orders. But their most profound impact is on society and the psyche of individuals. COVID-19 is no different.

I was heading to the office the other day using one of the taxi-hailing services. At a traffic stop, the driver and I spotted some youth and Syrians, mostly women and children, approaching cars one by one selling items such as tissue paper and face masks. They were trying to survive in a strange and uncertain time, when business activity is depressed and an economic slowdown, if not recession, is set to disproportionately impact lower-income groups.

“If only they would use the police to kick and beat them, they wouldn't dare come out again,” the driver screamed unprovoked, obviously annoyed by what they were doing. “They speak with everyone and touch everything.”

On another occasion, talking with an acquaintance, I was presented with a chilling “solution” to the problem.

“It doesn’t matter if we are staying home all the time and washing hands,” he said. “Unless they force sex workers off the streets, it’s all for nothing.”

“But how would they continue to make a living?” I enquired. “Should there not be a plan in place first to ensure that they don’t starve?”

He did not think so.

“That would take too long - we have to choose,” he said. “Imagine one of them sleeps with a man, who then goes to infect his children, his wife, his maid. We have to choose.”

He is not wrong that these groups of people - street vendors, sex workers, minibus taxi drivers, waitresses - that are at the bottom of the economic scale are most exposed to COVID-19. They interact with too many people. The chances that they will catch it and give it to others is high.

But should this make them the enemy of the people? Do those who work these types of jobs do so because they enjoy them and have always aspired to them?

It is doubtful, and society needs to recognise this. Unavoidably, in times of crisis such as this, animal instincts kick in, and comes the temptation is to get rid of the problem in the most expedient manner possible, however crude and cruel it may be.

This is basic human nature, an instinct that was probably critical at some point in the evolutionary process. It is also one that, as conscious beings with a fairly good understanding of justice, democracy, fairness and the socio-political systems that increase the lot of some while reducing that of others, we should be ashamed of.

We risk compromising our moral values the second we begin to make the assumption that the lives of the few, for whatever reason, deserve to be sacrificed to save those of the majority. It is a slippery slope that has consistently led to the oppression, disenfranchisement and the loss of so many lives.

Every tyranny starts this way - with a society ready to accept the prosecution, abuse, exploitation or killing of the few for the sake of the “greater good.”

There is almost always a third way, a compromise that does not sacrifice anyone for the sake of everyone else. A little idealistic of a view, I admit, but extreme decisions should not be made without the utmost deliberation and a central body to take responsibility. The expedient path of sacrificing some for the sake of others should never be the default mode.

We should be able to support each other in times such as this, not resort to our basest instincts. This requires a conscious effort, a great deal of sympathy and the understanding that almost every society has already been through much worse.

Tracking COVID-19


Total cases Reported In Ethiopia


New cases Reported In Ethiopia


Active cases Reported In Ethiopia


New Deaths Reported In Ethiopia


Total Deaths Reported In Ethiopia


Total Recovered Reported In Ethiopia


Critical in Ethiopia

Source: Coronavirus monitor API

PUBLISHED ON Apr 17,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1042]

Christian tesfaye (christian. is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

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