Where empathy fails
Sandro Galea's Art of Medicine piece in The Lancet (Compassion in a time of COVID-19):
And yet, it is worth reflecting on the extent to which our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been informed by an understanding that we are all in this together, that the virus does not discriminate, and that as a result it benefits us all to comply with physical distancing guidelines to protect others and ourselves. Our empathy, our capacity to envision that we too could be affected, has been a powerful tool in the public health arsenal. But, in large part, it is hard not to notice that our empathy is informed here, as it often is, by an appreciation of our own personal risk. We feel regret and feel terrible about those who are suffering, in no small part because we can imagine that suffering being our own.Just when you think it's going to be one of those corny essays laced with motherhood statements, Galea jolts you:
But is it true that this suffering is our own? Is it true that COVID-19 does not discriminate?He unpacks his reply:
It turns out that COVID-19 does discriminate, and that those who are already vulnerable—for example, the unstably housed, people on low income, those with poorer education, and individuals with less access to reliable nutritious food—are more likely to both become infected with the virus and die from COVID-19.
And this is where empathy fails.His solution is not merely empathy but compassion.
This calls ultimately for compassion as the animating force behind our thinking about health, and our thinking about how we go about informing the decisions we make to contain a novel threat like COVID-19. Compassion extends beyond empathy. It does not motivate our action because we too may be harmed. Compassion motivates action because the phenomena we observe are unjust, not worthy of the world we would like to live in. Martin Luther King Jr spoke often of compassion, enjoining us to see that compassion ultimately motivates not to “[fling] a coin to a beggar” but to “see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”. Compassion pushes us to understand how we have structured the world, and to ask how we can structure it better, not because we may suffer but because others are suffering and that is not how the world should be.
In the final paragraphs, Galea reimagines a different, more compassionate world. It is an honest and refreshing perspective, massively different from the toxic self-absorbed rants on Twitter. I encourage you to read it.
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