A group of nuns sing hymns together on a balcony in Rome. A GP offers online advice to expectant and new mothers. You’ve all seen the Instagram slogans, the Facebook videos and the billboards. “Be kind to each other”. “This will pass”. “Help out a neighbour”. Since the coronavirus pandemic has swept the UK, killing x people so far and rising in infection rates daily, the population’s thoughts have turned in unexpected and perhaps unprecedented ways towards kindness. It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue past the end of lockdown – and whether it can escape the grip of corporate greed.
Kindness is, obviously, not new. It’s as old as time. From the statement in the Baghavad Gita that “a gift is pure… when we expect nothing in return” to the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which has over a million followers on Facebook, evidence of organised attempts to help others is the backbone of human history. In times of crisis, such efforts intensify. As the coronavirus began to morph from a mild problem to an urgent threat in the UK, the organisation COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK rapidly formed and systematised. Aiming to coordinate and galvanise the thousands of able-bodied and free people who wanted to help the lonely or vulnerable around them, it has rallied hundreds of thousands in 1887 cells across the country. The kinds of aid being offered – shopping, dog-walking and phone conversations – are both necessary and meaningful to those stuck in complete isolation. And, run and staffed entirely by volunteers, it epitomises where kindness has blossomed during the pandemic.
Elsewhere, though, calls for kindness have left a sour taste. Predictably, celebrities have come in for a large share of the backlash. An LA comedian started a Twitter thread asking for stories of the notorious meanness of Ellen Degeneres – a response to the perceived hypocrisy of her catchphrase, “Be kind to one another”. The thread stretched to over two thousand replies. John Krasinski, whose self-made YouTube news show Some Good News had garnered two and a half million subscribers in a matter of weeks, sold the show yesterday to CBS. Krasinski will now serve as executive producer rather than presenter. Even during a pandemic, it seems, a profit can be turned from kindness. Everywhere there is evidence of big businesses scrambling to appear philanthropic – Amazon now prompts each visitor to the website to make a donation to the Red Cross. It has pledged £3.2 million of its £2 billion UK revenue in donations (That’s 0.15%). It all rings a bit hollow.
Gratitude, the other side of the coin to kindness, is also being questioned. The Thursday ritual of clapping publicly for NHS and frontline workers has been criticised by some commentators as a redundant piece of performativity that distracts the public from chronic underfunding by the government. An observer on Twitter noted that if each of the UK’s 54 billionaires donated 1% of their wealth to the NHS, at least £540 million would be raised; this in the wake of the 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore raising £32 million by walking laps of his garden. Does praising the kindness of workers who are really being exploited minimalise the real problems of long working hours, low pay (for nurses) and lack of adequate protective equipment? Or are the anti-clappers just curmudgeons who don’t want to show gratitude for those who – whatever their employment status – really are saving lives?
The answer, clearly, lies somewhere in between. Although an encouragement to be kind can strike a false note if played on the wrong instrument, it doesn’t hurt to act on it nonetheless. Showing genuine gratitude for the selfless work of those putting their lives at risk is, obviously, well-intentioned. But we should be aware that acts of kindness can have sinister motives. Let’s make sure that, as we slowly begin to transition out of lockdown and back into normal life, our deeds match our words – even on a small scale.