This morning my husband and I looked again at the numbers: the COVID-19 count around the world. It is part of our new morning routine. We look for how our own nation is faring compared to other countries. This morning he had a hint of hope in his voice as he noted the increase wasn’t too great here in Canada. “Maybe we’ll manage to flatten the curve enough” he said. The ‘we’ is our nation. The ‘enough’ would keep the death toll to tragic instead of rising to catastrophic. Never more has our interconnectedness been so obvious and our need to lay down our individual ‘freedoms’ in favour of the whole so desperately needed. My husband is a medical professional and these days, he is not too hopeful by the end of his shift. He interacts all day with a stream of people failing to follow the current advice— putting other people at risk. Putting the vulnerable at risk. Putting our children at risk. Tonight he’ll sleep on the floor in his clinic in the hopes of keeping the virus from our family and from keeping any illness we might have in our household away from the most vulnerable of his patients. Our family is desperate to keep him healthy because we know how needed he is on the front lines right now. ‘We’ as a family are doing what ‘we’ can do to help our community and nation in the midst of crises.
It was interesting this week to read about the tension between individual identity, sub-cultural identities and national identities in Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Fukuyama is an American political scientist and writer best known for his theory that liberal democracy and the free market would be the final sociopolitical evolution and would spread globally-though he’s since amended that standpoint. On another occasion I might have been keen to interact with what he had to say about the rise of identity politics as people either fail to develop a sense of belonging within their nation or find that their ‘authentic self’ is suppressed by societal expectations and so they gather with others (often through online connections) to create enough political momentum to seek legitimizing, legally recognized rights. He suggests this is one of the greatest threats to liberal democracy. “[O]nly in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.” However in the midst of the global crises we are all facing, it is clear that campaigning for such rights has been paused for the moment. Instead I feel that many nations are reconsolidating and re-affirming identities, because at the moment ‘we’ are truly in this together.
In an era of high mobility and travel, we are tasting the cost of our highly interconnected world and many countries are calling their citizens home as health insurance won’t cover them abroad.Borders are closing. People are scrambling to return to the protection they gain as citizens. A “function of national identity is to make possible liberal democracy itself. A liberal democracy is an implicit contract between citizens and their government, and among the citizens themselves, under which they give up certain rights in order that the government protects other rights that are more basic and important.” As we stare down an existential crises, we are being asked by our government to voluntarily lay down our right to freedom of movement and gathering in order that the basic right to life might be protected.
The character of our countries is being tested. It’s what a former coach referred to as a ‘gut check’. In times of adversity our character is both tested and reformed. Angela Duckworth describes resilience and perseverance as ‘grit’ and has found that a developmental model of creating grit in people is useful when a leader’s goal is a strengthening of the entire group. She says “[o]n the battlefield, leading from the front means, quite literally getting out in front with your soldiers, doing the same hard work, facing the same mortal risks.” Our Prime Minister is doing his best to model the behaviour he is asking of others as he is leading the country from quarantine while his wife recovers from COVID-19. As he rises, “[w]e rise to the occasion….we change when we need to. Necessity is the mother of adaptation.” National identity will be shaped by how we face this challenge. “The level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission.” If we come together well, we will grow in our commitment to one another and fuel pride in our national identity and grow confidence in our government. If we do poorly, we will be a nation shaped by grief and division as we look for people to blame.
When this finally passes, the world will be changed. The economy is collapsing and will need to be rebuilt. Policies around global travel will need to be reevaluated. We may even find that some of the practices we are having to adopt prove to be healthier for our well being and our planet—and we may decide to keep them. One thing is certain, recovery will need to begin at the national level. National identity is valuable according to Fukuyama because it provides 1)physical security, 2) a quality of government, 3)facilitation of economic development 4) promotes a wide radius of trust, 5) maintains social nets that mitigate economic inequality, and 6) creates a liberal democracy. Let us pray that our nations can rise to this challenge. In the meantime, perhaps we might take to heart the words of Kets de Vries, “Although life is everything but a rose garden, the most effective response to an existential crisis is to build caring relationships, seek out empathetic listeners and embark on meaningful pursuits—however small. We need to treasure the simple pleasures of life:walking in nature, admiring a sunset, reading a good book, a good conversation, the company of loved ones, and seeing our children grow up.”
 Sophia Harris, “Why some Canadians abroad aren’t rushing home, despite Trudeau’s plea”, “CBC News,”accessed March 20, 2020, https://apple.news/Anuw-UUjXTbGWwtP9zu983A)