Coronavirus Is Forcing Europe to Rediscover Civil Society

Firefighter ambulance crew members of the Departmental Fire and Rescue Service arrive on site for a rescue operation in Strasbourg, France, March 28, 2020. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
The state alone can’t save Europe from COVID-19. But individuals just might.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A ndré Muswieck is a German fireman. At seven o’clock last Monday evening, the phone rang in his fire station in Bergen auf Rügen, 200 kilometers from Berlin. On the other side of the line there was no fire, at least not the kind he usually puts out. It was the voice of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted to know what he considered his most important contribution to society. Muswieck was not rude, but he was laconic: “Listen, I’m not in the mood for f***ing radio jokes right now.” And he hung up.

Merkel isn’t used to being hung up on. Especially not by firemen. I guess nobody would be too happy about the fire department hanging up on them. We all wanted to be a fireman when we were kids. So she called again. This time, she managed to convince Muswieck that she was the real Merkel, and she congratulated the emergency workers on their support during the health crisis. But what I like about the story is not Merkel but Muswieck, because he plays the part of a new kind of hero: one who wouldn’t ever expect to receive a call from someone important just because he’s doing his job. Muswieck is civil society. And that’s exactly what we need now. When people tell you that the model for getting out of this mess is China, the criminal Communist dictatorship, remind them that China is not the solution but the problem. The real solution is Muswieck.

The national role model is a normal guy. He works in a hospital, drives a bus, delivers fruit to the supermarket, or supervises a power plant. He isn’t aware that he’s saving humanity with his work. He isn’t trying to raise awareness. He isn’t trying to do anything more than his duty, but will die doing it if necessary. Nor does he expect state honors. He’s content to be paid at the end of the month, if possible.

Nuradin, the driver of the 110 bus in Berlin, is one of these new heroes. In an interview for the German press, he explains how he is exposed to the coronavirus every day. He receives congratulations from passengers, who until now didn’t even say hi each morning as they boarded his bus. His reply to them is great: “It’s nothing, someone has to do this job.” Giuseppe Berardelli used to say something along those lines too, until he got the coronavirus. He was a priest in Bergamo, Italy. He was 72 years old and died after donating his mechanical ventilator to a younger patient. The ventilator had been purchased for him by the faithful at his parish. But he gave it up to save someone else’s life. No one was able to attend his funeral because of the health measures. But the whole town joined in applause to say goodbye to Father Berardelli.

Giuseppe, Nuradin, and Muswieck are saving us in this sad hour, each in his own way. And their example is spreading. Social networks are also channeling the best of civil society. First in Italy, then in Spain, and now all over the world. Hence the spread of the viral message: “Hi, I’m Antonio, a retired doctor. If during quarantine you need help with a medical emergency that is not serious enough to go to hospital and you can’t find your doctor, I will attend you, no charge. Send me a direct message.” Dozens of retired doctors then posted similar messages on their networks. Later on, other professionals, unemployed workers, retired people, and people with free time joined in. Teachers offer desperate parents help with homeschooling, booksellers give personalized advice on books for quarantined readers, and food engineers teach anyone who needs to know how to preserve food for a longer time.

Slightly discouraged by how useful doctors, scientists, and psychologists are to mankind, those of us that just write for a living tend to get jealous. We vented our frustrations on Twitter a few days ago: “Hello, I’m a philosopher. If during the quarantine you need help about Thomistic ethics but it’s not serious enough to go to the Thomistic emergency room and you can’t find your family philosopher, I can help you, no charge. Send me a direct message.” We Spaniards might be confined. But don’t expect us to suddenly take everything seriously.

A few days ago, we learned from the press that the Spanish government had been unable to obtain masks, respirators, or tests — they had to return 650,000 defective tests to China because they were conned. Which is why so many doctors were risking their lives attending to coronavirus patients without protection, or wrapped up in plastic bags, while the infection rate among health workers soared. The public reaction was immediate.

Inditex, the world’s largest textile company, made its immense logistics service available to the government, brought half a million masks to Spain, and donated millions of euros to hospitals. I like to boast about it because the company is from my hometown, La Coruña. The owner of Inditex is multimillionaire Amancio Ortega, a guy from a humble background. In 1975, he opened his first clothing store. Today, he has more than 7,000. Most Spaniards reacted with gratitude to Inditex’s donations, but not all. The left wing took advantage of Inditex’s donations to organize a Twitter campaign against Ortega. The government’s own vice president, the Communist Pablo Iglesias Turrion, has shamed Ortega for his donations to the public health system on several occasions. “Spain is not a banana republic that depends on someone coming along and giving us things,” he has said.

It’s better just to pretend he never said it. That’s what the nuns who, unaware of these controversies, began to sew masks in their convents several weeks ago are doing. As are grandparents making masks in old people’s homes. And the owners of 3D printers, who have begun to share plans for respirators and print pieces. It’s a pity that the plans for printing governments don’t exist yet.

From what we are seeing in Europe, this new heroic profile emerging from civil society represents a threat to the Left. Its individual initiative contributes to the cohesion of society and to uniting the nation, proving people don’t need the state to force them to do their duty. And finally, because contribution to the common good comes before ideology. A country united and fulfilling its obligation through individual responsibility is incompatible with politicians who want the state to provide a universal minimum wage paid by the Ministry of Unicorns, or who want to confiscate a good chunk of workers’ wages to finance, I don’t know, the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Damned Pangolins. I suppose these are the kind of things worth fighting for until you actually have to do it with your own money.

When most of society practices charity — solidarity is more like a hurting conscience for social-democrat millionaires — the state becomes less necessary. That’s why the Left feels the need to deactivate the feeling of unity that is born of tragic times. I’ll give you an example from my own country. But first, you have to promise me that, once you’re thinking, “What a bunch of idiots the Spanish are!” you remember that this is only an exception, and that really Spain is a great nation.

This happened in my own backyard. When the confinement started, someone on Twitter called for the entire country to come to their windows at eight in the evening and give a big round of applause to medical workers. The first day was exciting. Even my surliest and most cantankerous neighbors leaned out the window and applauded. It was like a Frank Capra movie. All that was missing was the snow. On the second and third day, the applause was even louder, and was followed by shouts of “Viva España!” and “Keep it up, neighbors!” On the fourth day, the left wing, with the aforementioned Pablo Iglesias, called on the neighbors to beat their pots and pans against the King of Spain, who represents national unity. So a series of neighbors leaned out of the balconies with their pots and pans and began to beat them with the headache-inducing zeal that only a progressive neighbor confined in captivity is capable of. As a result, when the time came for applause, the ovation degenerated into an escalation of insults. That was the end of national unity. And so the Left began to fish in its favorite raging river, chaos.

That need for division, for moral and material poverty, explains why those in power in Cuba and Venezuela have welcomed the crisis. The extraordinary measures against the pandemic announced by the Cuban regime have provoked hilarious headlines in the international press: “Cuba forbids its inhabitants to leave the island.” I guess we were all looking forward to this change in the regime’s position. But the economies of Cuba and Venezuela will likely go down with the pandemic. Unfortunately, over there, the only stimulus that private initiatives receive from the government are electric shocks in El Helicoide prison.

To be fair, the Left is just as unreasonable in other latitudes. Remember on March 12 that the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said this about the coronavirus: “Look, about the coronavirus, that thing about not giving hugs. . . . We need to hug each other, it’s perfectly safe!” There were already more than a thousand dead in Europe. I think López Obrador tried to reassure his people by imitating John Wayne in The Quiet Man. But he turned out to be identical to Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! — which in an eloquent initiative was retitled in Latin America as “Where’s the Pilot?”

Throughout the West, governments are imposing harsh containment measures, an unprecedented curtailment of freedom. There is no alternative. But for that plan to work, private cooperation is needed. Modern states have no real power to contain and direct all of their citizens, thank God. There’s only one China, and it’s a bloody hellhole. Any Westerner would rather have three coronaviruses a month than live in a Communist dictatorship where human life is worthless.

That’s why it’s time for civil society. Every man’s time. The pandemic will hit us hard. It may wipe out the world we knew. The new world won’t rise from states, but from each of us. It’s a good time to remember what the Colombian philosopher Gómez Dávila once said: “A decent man is one who demands of himself that which the circumstances do not.” The cure for this crisis is clear: Each individual must act as if the state did not exist, and each state must act as if individual initiatives didn’t. And then, everyone pray.

Most Popular

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More

Mel Gibson’s Beastmode

Late-period Mel Gibson is probably the best Mel Gibson; in film after film after film he plays ornery old bastards with such conviction that each successive outing feels like a personal trip to the confessional. He doesn’t need the money anymore, and most of these roles are in indie movies that pay very little ... Read More
Elections

Biden: Make America Great Again

A promise of economic nationalism, an expensive infrastructure bill that’s really a make-work program, prejudice against foreigners, denunciations of Wall Street — Joe Biden is running the 2016 Trump campaign against Donald Trump in 2020. Joe Biden gave a big economic speech in Pennsylvania yesterday, and ... Read More
Elections

Biden: Make America Great Again

A promise of economic nationalism, an expensive infrastructure bill that’s really a make-work program, prejudice against foreigners, denunciations of Wall Street — Joe Biden is running the 2016 Trump campaign against Donald Trump in 2020. Joe Biden gave a big economic speech in Pennsylvania yesterday, and ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More
Culture

No One Is Ever Woke Enough

Closing out the week: The Harper’s letter calling for freedom of expression demonstrates that no one is ever “woke” enough, and that any institution that tries to make peace with the perpetually aggrieved eventually becomes dysfunctional; the value of Hamilton as a litmus test of the limits of cancel ... Read More