Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tarps and COVID-19

Saw this in my feed. So Pinoy in many respects:  the graduation photo the tarp with three fonts: Monotype Corsiva ("Congratulations"), Arial (the girl's name), and the serif below the papaya tree the use of the middle name the color scheme (pink in white) the iconic Philippine countryside It's the first time I'm hearing about Zarraga, some 16 km north of Iloilo City. Seems like a charming place to visit. Also COVID-free. 

Week 9, 2012: Aboard the MV Logos Hope

I met old friends from college last Saturday. We had breakfast at an old restaurant along Ongpin Street called Saludo's. Some of us went to Logos Hope, a ship with lots of books inside it—some 5000 titles, we were told. The sun was hot, in a cancerous, melanoma-inducing kind of way. Summer is just right around the corner. Took us a while to get inside the ship. I thought this view of Manila's skyline from one of the windows was amazing. We saw what we came for: books. They were sold in "units" that had a corresponding peso conversion. The books sold cheaply, so I got David Copperfield by Charles Dickens for 150 units (Php 150). I plan to read at least one Dickens novel this year, 2012 being his 200th birthday. (I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read a single novel of his, ever). I saw Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, classics, modern fiction, modern Christian literature, biographies, medical and nursing textbooks, and children's books. Visit