Virtues, Volunteering and Coronavirus

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By Claire Jackson, Jubilee Centre of Character & Virtues
School of Education, University of Birmingham

This crisis offers us an opportunity to hone and habituate these character strengths our communities increasingly need from us.

These are very strange times that we are living in, as I’m sure you have already noticed. It’s easy to feel overcome with anxiety and helplessness at the current situation the coronavirus outbreak has caused. However, there are things that we can all do to help one another, and, through doing so, help ourselves. Amidst the severity of the daily updates on the spread of the virus, the world’s media has also been highlighting virtuous behaviours displayed by individuals and groups, such as volunteering, service, and ‘acts of kindness’.

Benefits of Volunteering

Here at the Jubilee Centre, we have explored the ‘double benefit’ that many can gain from volunteering, whereby through helping others, we both benefit society and ourselves through character development and increased wellbeing. Studies, such as that by Pine et al. (2018), have found that volunteering to support those affected by a disaster or crisis can potentially help to reduce the volunteers’ stress and anxiety induced by the event(s).

Dr Yvonne Su, who researches people’s responses to disasters, has found that ‘community humanitarian responses’ tend to emerge quickly; ‘generally… smaller acts of altruism and solidarity that help to make those helping and those being helped feel better and stronger in the face of a crisis’.

There are already many incredible groups and individuals supporting their communities to get through the crisis. Worldwide acts of kindness are being regularly reported on by news outlets, as well as those more locally. From the Jubilee Centre’s perspective, it is particularly interesting to see which virtues and character strengths are the media championing through these accounts. What sort of people are we being told to emulate? And, given this is very much a global crisis, does this profile change in different parts of the world?

Virtuous Behaviours Around the World

Unsurprisingly, civic virtues such as volunteering, neighbourliness and community awareness resonate throughout the reports. In Canada, the concept of ‘caremongering’ has taken root, coined by a group of people who wanted to flip the narrative of ‘scaremongering’ and support vulnerable people in their communities.

In China, where volunteer call-handlers have proven crucial, individuals such as Liu Xiaofeng have received recognition. Liu started her volunteering service in 1976 as a secondary school student in response to another crisis, the Tangshan earthquake. From then ‘the habit stuck’, and although Liu had resigned from volunteering four years ago, she stepped back up to support people through this new crisis. Liu appears to be a shining example of an individual with a ‘habit of service’. (She also demonstrates humility in her assertion that she is ‘just an ordinary woman’!).

There are some subtle differences in the virtues both explicitly and implicitly championed across the world’s media. In Italy, which has been hit especially hard by the virus, key figures such as the Pope encourage people to continue to keep their hope and faith, two of the three core theological virtues of the Catholic Church. Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, has praised the courage and determination of his nation.

India has also begun to adopt the Canadian ‘caremongering’ initiative, thanks to the work of Mahita Nagaraj, who learned about it through the media. Increasingly threatened by an outbreak of coronavirus, Indian media has focused on the generosity of different groups and individuals, and gratitude towards those offering help. Informal volunteers in Spain are acting out of respect for their elderly neighbours, and have adopted a new unofficial anthem of resilience, a 1990s Spanish hit song titled Resistire. In addition to ‘caremongering’, Canadians have focused on social justice and tolerance, as well as displaying love to others.

And, of course, there are the 750,000 people who responded to the call for NHS Volunteer Responders here in the UK, far surpassing the original target of 250,000 sign-ups. The Royal Voluntary Service, responsible for the volunteer drive, has also written about Britain’s age-old commitment to volunteering in crises.

Which Virtues are Being Celebrated?

Hence, the virtues that the media have chosen to highlight in the efforts of ‘ordinary’ people are:

  • Civic (volunteering, neighbourliness, community awareness, service)
  • Moral (love, kindness, gratitude, respect, tolerance).

There are also several references to the need for performance virtues such as resilience, determination and courage, but few regarding intellectual virtues (apart from occasional creativity).

Going forward, it is heartening to read stories of these virtuous behaviours and individuals across the world, especially when experiences of empty shelves and using the threat of coronavirus as a ‘weapon’ are also prevalent. As the NCVO reminds us that we are facing ‘a marathon, not a sprint’ in our volunteering efforts, perhaps this crisis offers us an opportunity to hone and habituate these character strengths our communities increasingly need from us.

Read the original blog here.


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