Camino De Singapore: why someone might flout covid-19 rules.

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As 2022 begins, we start our third year of living in pandemic times. COVID-19 has made life difficult for almost everyone, perhaps with the notable exception of those whose wealth doubled in the same period. We have been hoping that the outbreaks will be controllable and that COVID-related restrictions will soon end.

It is for this reason that we expect everyone else to behave responsibly so as not to “sabotage” the sacrifices that so many have made to minimise the spread of the disease. Thus, it is not surprising that the story of a man who broke COVID-19 rules and refused a test despite exhibiting symptoms angered many people. This is because he was not following the unwritten “social contract” that all of us need to be obedient to the rules so that we can get out of this pandemic as soon as possible. Indeed, the enforcement of the law had been swift. He was sentenced to five weeks of jail.

Nevertheless, things are rarely what they seem to be. I am glad and grateful that President Halimah, while acknowledging the irresponsibility of this man, highlighted the reason for the man’s behaviour. She took the time to reflect and share that loss of income for this man was the primary reason why he refused to be tested.

Had he got a positive result, he would be placed on sick leave, and he would lose the ability to claim a $100 allowance meant for company staff members who can work throughout the month without any absent days. This is a significant amount for low-income workers. Thus, she explained, such irresponsible behaviours could be greatly reduced if workers are not paid so low that they would desperately pursue such incentives.

How could someone be put in such a difficult situation, so as to choose behaving irresponsibly, endangering other people, for the sake of $100?Some would explain that this is the result of the market forces. Since wage is determined by supply of and demand for labour, it is inevitable that workers whose skills are easy to acquire and are not in high demand will not be paid generously. Then, naturally, a person with low income would be incentivised to pursue whatever additional income they could with any means necessary. The solution, then, is to ensure that every low-income worker is equipped with skills that employers would value.

Pope St John Paul II could offer another perspective. He explained that there are things he called “structures of sins” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 36). They are not sins committed by individuals but they are social structures that influence people’s behaviours negatively, encouraging people to sin. They do not come out of nowhere but they are born from an accumulation of committed personal sins, sloth, and failures to do good. The way out, for the saintly pope, is “a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one’s neighbour with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage”. In other words, we need solidarity, where all members of the society recognise one another as persons with dignity (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38-39).

I think the old economic explanation of this man’s irresponsible behaviour can be useful in that it encourages us to continue improving our skills so that they are relevant for our work and perhaps even for the society. That said, it is also true that more and more economists reject that sort of explanation. However, I think John Paul II’s analysis is, in the end, more wholesome. Such a diagnosis invites and challenges everyone to contribute and be part of the solution, rather than leaving the burden of improvement to only a few. Surely, such a solution would be far more effective.

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Erwin Susanto is a staff member of Caritas Singapore. He enjoys boring his friends with his interest in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies and finds it hard to resist commentating on all kinds of contemporary issues. He tries his best not to sound “cheem”.