Empathy and COVID-19
Is a reset on our collective empathy possible?
Posted January 31, 2021
As the world faces daunting challenges, empathy is more important than ever. But fear and division have reached new heights, the sources of which are intricately tied into what we need to be empathetic about during the COVID-19 pandemic. A wide-ranging slate of experts weighs in on the importance of empathy in public health, how it differs in an individual versus a society, and whether we can hit the "reset" button in 2021.
Why empathy is so important
Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, believes that empathy is a quality that marks us as a people. He says it has a structural basis in neuroscience but also heavily relies on psychology. Even pre-pandemic, he argued that empathy is such an indispensable part of the work of public health that educators should "regard empathy as one of the core competencies we impart to our students."
"Empathy is critical and key," agrees Cinira Baldi, vice president and chief development and communications officer for Project HOPE, a non-governmental global health organization. "As a humanitarian worker, I’ve traveled to Jordan refugee camps, been to the border of South Sudan, met with survivors of the Indonesia 2018 tsunami ... many times, I have been moved beyond words by people’s capacity for strength and resilience through conditions unthinkable to many."
"Now in the U.S., we are seeing similarities to what people experience globally in emergency zones, with grief, isolation, loss of life, grieving our old lives, and fear of the unknown impacting our mental and physical well-being," states Baldi. "We must rely on empathy to address the psychosocial aspects of where the U.S. is today and have conversations without judgment or stigmatization that seek what kind of support people need, but are afraid to ask for, and examine their access to mental health resources."
"The profundity of the breadth, scope, and effect(s) of the pandemic foster considerable feelings of solidarity with any and all who have suffered—and are continuing to suffer—the biological, psychological and socio-economic impacts of the disease in various aspects of their daily lives and individual and community existence," says James Giordano, professor of neurology and ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.
"Public health maintains a critical balance of care for populations at-large, and the individuals that comprise them. In this way empathy that extends to both the specifics of each person, and the entirety of the group is a fundamental precept of public health practice."
As this past summer spiked higher and higher COVID-19 numbers across the country, Galea wrote about the admirable shows of empathy we'd seen: "In some ways, the pandemic has brought populations together, generating an understanding that our health is interlinked and that we could all be at risk. That understanding made it possible, perhaps in an unprecedented way, to empathise with those with the disease and to wish them well out of a clear sense that they could also be us."
Interpersonal empathy is different from collective empathy
Giordano explains: "In many ways, empathy and altruism function cooperatively. But it's important to note that neurocognitive research demonstrates that much of altruism also has a strongly egoistic (that is, self-oriented) aspect. Therefore, it is vital to foster more realistic views of the relative "collective" of the human condition, as enacted and embedded in a range of scales—from the individual to the international. While we certainly are a competitive species, our biological anthropology is such that to flourish we must also be highly cooperative and collaborative, in our biological, psychological, social and economic views, values, beliefs, and behaviors."
"This global pandemic is different from past public health emergencies because it is affecting us all in one way or another; therefore, each of us can foster empathy in the sense that we are each going through our own experience and can imagine that others are as well," says Baldi. "We must aim to focus on the unity of a shared experience, rather than what divides us. We will get through this with people coming together and understanding that one’s actions have a multiplier effect of impacting others."
And yet, politics has bled into other aspects of our lives, in particular in the United States, with public health at center stage. Some very public displays of intractability or denial garnered headlines across the U.S. during the past year. Once heralded for their response to the pandemic, some health care workers are now being vilified and face hostility from their own community driving them to leave their jobs. Since it seems that we're starting 2021 with a deficit of empathy, can society hit the reset button?
Is a reset on collective empathy possible?
"A collective reset is possible!" assures Cassandra LeClair, a professor of communication studies at Texas State University. However, she warns, "One problem right now is burnout. Everyone is more heightened emotionally, and many people are experiencing hardships. We don't create empathy by making a list of how we are more stressed than others, but we can evoke empathy by recognizing that feeling stressed is awful."
"On a mass level, think about the energy you are putting out into the world," suggests LeClair. "Be mindful of how you are speaking [or posting on social media] about different events. If we work to have greater awareness and understanding of others' emotions, we can think about times we have experienced those emotions. We can think about the difficulties we have from a mutual understanding of hurt instead of judging that the hurt exists."
Baldi prefers to use a different word: "Rather than 'reset,’ we should use this as an opportunity to ‘reshape’ our collective mindset. Empathy will help us examine, learn and grow from lived experiences so we may better adapt and respond to future challenges and crises."
However, Galea argues in his article that COVID-19 has shown him that empathy fails when not coupled with compassion, in particular to address the ways in which the pandemic is affecting underserved populations. "The effects of COVID-19, far from being indiscriminate, follow deeply entrenched patterns of health inequities, mirroring burdens of disease that are near universal."
"Empathy in the context of health is largely predicated on our appreciating the risks of a disease because we can imagine getting the disease ourselves. When we imagine we can also be infected, we are then willing to take the steps necessary to protect ourselves—and others—from the disease. 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."
Galeo's closing words in The Lancet ring even more true in 2021, as the widespread distribution of the vaccines commences: "In a sense, COVID-19 has shown us that a healthy person and a healthy world are the same. And healthy people and a healthy world are both strengthened immeasurably by having compassion at the heart of health."
Galea, MD, DrPH, S., 2016. Empathy and the Health of Populations | SPH. [online] Bu.edu. Available at: <https://www.bu.edu/sph/news/articles/2016/empathy-and-the-health-of-pop…; [Accessed 31 January 2021].
Galea, MD, DrPH, S., 2020. Compassion in a time of COVID-19. The Lancet, 395(10241), pp.1897-1898.