Compassion and Connection in the Age of COVID-19
How Building a Culture of Belonging Can Help Us Meet the Challenges of this Pandemic and Prevent Future Ones
The current coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to answer some essential questions about our interconnectedness.
We are clearly more interconnected than we’ve ever been. Look at our ability to trade, communicate, and interact with one another over long distances. And look at the speed of contagion of a global pandemic. A tiny virus that originates in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, can, within months, spread across the entire world — so that today nearly everyone on the planet is having to shift their lives because of it.
It’s natural to say in response to a crisis such as this: “We’re all in this together.”
And yet, this statement isn’t an accurate representation of where we really are as a global culture.
The coronavirus pandemic highlights how, even in a world that promises interconnectedness, many are left behind. The effects of this crisis are amplified because of our disconnection — because, despite our talk of interconnectedness, our world has great divides.
We haven’t yet created a world in which everyone belongs.
It’s well known that certain segments of society and certain countries will suffer disproportionately because of this pandemic. There are already vast differences in how individuals, communities, and nations are experiencing it. A service industry employee with no savings is in a very different situation than the Fortune 500 CEO. Scandinavian nations have a very different ability to respond to a pandemic than countries in Sub Saharan Africa. For many of the 1.3 billion people of India, the idea of ‘social distancing’ is, if not impossible, deeply impractical.
In any pandemic there are going to be consequences — lives lost, economies crippled, individuals left to fend for themselves. But globally, we’re facing deeper consequences than we should have to with COVID-19 because we haven’t yet built a culture of belonging.
What do I mean by a culture of belonging?
I mean a global culture in which each person plays a part, and in which the society as a whole values and supports each part that is played.
I mean truly fulfilling the promise of global interconnectedness through creating a world in which everyone feels cared for, supported, and has a foundation upon which to thrive.
When we embrace the principle of belonging, we understand that a society is only as good as its ability to care for and include everyone. That we are intimately tied to each other and to the ecosystems we inhabit, and that we have a responsibility to both. To build structures of care and compassion that reinforce this mutual belonging isn’t simply a ‘nice thing to do.’ It’s essential to our future. This pandemic is showing us more clearly than ever the profound necessity of building environmental and social safeguards to stave off future crises.
If we build our political, economic, and social systems on principles of belonging, then when we face crises, we are better equipped to meet them. We won’t be faced with the prospect of millions of people potentially unable to put food on the table, or a medical system tapped beyond its capacity. Perhaps, when we re-evaluate what it means to interact with our local ecosystems and with wildlife, we can avoid another pandemic altogether.
We must commit to building this vision together, now.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the divides that exist within society, and at the same time offers us an unprecedented opportunity to shift our behavior.
Here are some concrete examples of how building a culture of belonging can help us meet the challenges of this pandemic and can also keep such a global crisis from happening again.
Build an Economy in Which Everyone Belongs.
Here’s a simple principle — no one should fear for their livelihood in a time of crisis.
European societies that have paid sick-leave policies and forward-looking labor rules facilitate efforts to contain the virus and mitigate economic recession. This isn’t only compassionate policy. It’s an effective strategy for supporting public health. It’s way of ensuring that workers do not feel they must go to work even if they’re contagiously ill. While the United States still notably lacks a national sick leave policy, Canada, too, leaves the question up to provincial governments — and it’s still a matter of fierce debate in many parts of the country. This crisis should demonstrate the clear logic of investment in social and economic safety net programs.
Coronavirus has serious implications for inequality. Higher wage-earners with technology-driven jobs have more opportunities for telecommuting using their home Internet. Those who can afford it can have food and other necessities delivered to the door. On the other hand, people in service professions and the gig economy are unlikely to have the adaptability necessary to work from the home office, to take care of struggling parents, or to homeschool their kids. Many people are facing job losses or the reality of having to contend with the risk of contracting the virus at work.
So, as citizens of countries large and small, north and south, we’ll all need to invest more in shared public goods. This means paid sick leave, public health insurance, and pharmaceutical innovation for the priority of societal wellness. It also means new investments in what we all share, our sources of resilience: community parks and gardens, social businesses that ensure our access to food and vital supplies in future pandemics and natural disasters. Government policies, like the contentious US stimulus now being debated and the UK rescue package now being implemented, need to ask for shared sacrifice as a matter of solidarity . This means not just bailouts to giant corporations, but also commitments to preserve jobs and invest in workers and communities. If we’re all one, then all have to own the responsibility and potential hardship that come with crises — major financial institutions included — and all are responsible for developing an economic infrastructure that does not crumble during times of slowdown.
Practice ‘Expert Compassion.’
Dr. Paul Farmer, cofounder of Partners In Health and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has introduced a vital principle for managing the crisis: “Expert mercy.” This approach, as he puts it, blends “compassionate fellow feeling with interventions that save the sick and slow down spread.” In other words, the people in power during the coronavirus crisis must focus on real human empathy rather than just abstract statistics and economic indicators.
In the immediate term, outbreak responses must be merciful and humane. In addition to simply demanding that people “shelter in place,” people need access to food, safe shelter, and basic supplies. This means rejecting the impulse to sacrifice the health of older people to the cause of keeping the economy humming. This means ensuring that health care workers on the front lines have adequate access to protective gear and testing kits. It means looking out for the interest of all the grocery store personnel, home care workers, and delivery workers who are on the front lines of the crisis. Especially, this means looking out for the interests of the most vulnerable people in our societies. In Canada, people in immigration detention centers are largely living in “close proximity with others in facilities that tend to have poor ventilation, lack hygiene products, and provide limited access to medical care.” “Expert compassion” means this must change.
This isn’t just altruism — it’s effectiveness. “When disease control and good care are two sides of the same coin, public support for necessary containment efforts rises,” Paul Farmer observes. “Social cohesion can be one result of catastrophe.”
But this social cohesion shouldn’t just arise spontaneously when it has to — it should be actively cultivated through local and national policy on an ongoing basis.
Build deeper communion with nature.
Consider how our abuse of and interference with natural systems drives these novel health challenges. “We are the cause of almost all emerging diseases,” says Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist who works in China and is president of EcoHealth Alliance, an organization that studies the connections between human and wildlife health.
Spillovers of diseases from animals to humans, writes Daszak, are “increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers. Unprecedented road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development, as well as globalized travel and trade, make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses.”
COVID-19 is just one in a string of recent major epidemics: SARS, the swine flu, MERS, Ebola, and Zika all preceded COVID-19 in less than twenty years’ time. Over the last half-century, emerging diseases have quadrupled. With the exception of Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, each of the diseases above originated as viruses in animals that jumped to humans when we made contact with them.
Warmer temperatures due to climate change also increase the transmission of disease and create conditions for viruses and bacteria to evolve and become more transmittable to humans.
So, in addition to global action on climate and biodiversity, we should take coordinated action to conserve wildlife habitats with a goal of keeping dangerous animal microbes at bay.
This action does not have to be at the expense of the economy. Pandemics resulting from disrupted ecosystems cost the global economy trillions of dollars, so it’s hard to contend that environmental action is too costly. In fact, our efforts to reintroduce a more reciprocal relationship with nature can be a boon to the economy.
Many are seeing the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to shift to a more green economy — to stimulate job growth in alternative energy sectors and to rehire workers who’ve been laid off into greener jobs.
Reexamine a simple question: What do we value?
Paul Farmer once wrote: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” So, to correct what’s wrong in this time of COVID-19 means stepping out of our own shoes.
For people like me—who are fortunate enough to have homes in which to “shelter-in-place,” technology to connect and work, access to food and other necessities—this is still an undeniably stressful time. Yet, it’s our responsibility to focus our attention on the untold millions more who don’t have access to safe shelter—or shelter at all—let alone access to smartphones, telecommuting, and Zoom hangouts. It’s incumbent on us to focus on the older person in the hospital whose life is on the line because of a shortage of ventilators, the homeless person with no place to go, the migrant in the crowded detainment camp where there are few, if any, provisions being made to contain the virus.
When we focus deeply on shared solidarity, I believe we can realize the true meaning of this moment: a wakeup call to reexamine our values. A wakeup call to compassion for everyone around the world.
Of course, it’s most important for our societies’ leaders to wake up to this reality. It’s worth reflecting on how this crisis would have been different if we had spent the last twenty years cultivating a more compassionate economy and society.
Most governmental and corporate leaders have valued economic growth at all costs. What effect has that had on our healthcare system, on our workforce?
At a moment when market-based systems of organization and standard progress indicators like stock market growth and Gross Domestic Product are clearly failing us, we need to replace the old set of governance priorities — growth, speed, competition — with a new set of principles: solidarity, compassion, connection.
This is a serious challenge — especially when politicians, like the Lt. Governor of Texas, are literally asking older persons to sacrifice themselves for the sake of keeping the economy humming. Too many are still using this moment to promote broken paradigms and heighten division.
This is the moment when we all should be uniting — as individuals, as communities, as nations. If we don’t come together and meaningfully contemplate these fundamental questions now, we’ll merely go back to business as usual. We may not get another chance like this to look ourselves in the mirror and make necessary changes. My hope is that we’re on the verge of a great awakening in empathy, a planetary re-think when it comes to what we mutually value.
This may be a time of physical distancing, but, we, people all around the world, can come out of it more communal. Let’s all use these quiet days of quarantine to reflect on what we really want for our future — how we can live with more closeness, sustainability, and resilience when this storm passes over us.
As many commentators have pointed out of late, pandemics can bring out the worst in people: hoarding, selfishness, indifference. Yet, this pandemic can also be something different — an opportunity to construct a world in which more people feel that they belong. An opportunity to pinpoint areas of our societies that have been neglected and construct a healthier social fabric.
May this moment be the wake-up call we need to build a world of belonging.