It appears that COVID-19 and its variants may be with us for a long time, perhaps even for good. If so, we will have to live with them — as we have done with the seasonal flu for example, by lining up for annual shots.
Diseases are spreaders of not only contagion but custom. Blessing a person who sneezes, for example, is said to have begun in the sixth century with Pope Gregory I, who encouraged the practice during an outbreak of plague. Lasting customs from the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to reveal themselves. Will fashion designers accessorize outfits with coordinated face masks? Will it be considered bad luck to invite more than two families to a gathering?
It seems likely that COVID-19 will affect our ideas about good manners, as well. If we are due for a renewed emphasis on courtesy, we could hardly look for a better example than to George Washington — especially on Presidents' Day.
As a schoolboy, Washington famously copied out the "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." One of them, Rule No. 5, seems pertinent: "If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside."
Also handy in this COVID-themed winter, when any gathering is likely to be outdoors and therefore around a fire, is Rule No. 9: "Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it."
Other rules from the list that Washington curated admonish the know-it-all ("do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein"), commend social distancing ("When you meet with one of Greater Quality than yourself … give way for him to Pass") and urge compassion for the sick ("Reproach none for the Infirmities of Nature"). Of somewhat less usefulness in our day — but unassailable, even so — is the maxim that one should be discreet when killing fleas, ticks and lice.
It's tempting to ponder the effect that Washington's rules might have had on recent occupants of the office he was the first to hold. Rule No. 22: "Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy." Rule No. 49: "Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile." Rule No. 58: "Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for 'tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: & in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern."
Washington's rules do not mention vaccination, which was practiced in rudimentary form during his lifetime. (He required his troops to submit to inoculation against smallpox in 1777, during the War of Independence.) With vaccination a more familiar and contentious topic today, we suggest a few rules that Washington might have contributed had he lived to be 289.
Rule No. 111: "Be not boastful when your turn for Vaccination arrives. Remember the sensibilities of Those who must Wait, they know not for how long."
Rule No. 112: "Post not to Facebook, nor Twitter, nor yet to Instagram any likeness of your happy Face, smiling at the moment the Needle enters your arm. Think of those less fortunate, enumerated in Rule No. 111, who are Waiting still."
Rule No. 113: "Be not of surly demeanor while awaiting vaccination, but remain patiently seated under your own vine and fig tree, and be not afraid."
Washington's reputation as the original principled American leader suffers in light of his ownership of enslaved people.
Even so, as a boy he concluded his list of rules with this: "Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience." Come to think of it, that's a good conclusion for a Presidents' Day editorial, too.