When facing disasters, generally people are moved by compassion. They usually come together, and help each other. But not always. Pandemics are notable exceptions, historically.
With earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes, people unify. Throughout history, pandemics have been known to produce a detached, “survival of the fittest” mentality.
With COVID-19, we are facing extraordinary times that can bring out the worst in people. We have witnessed a supermarket knife fight over toilet paper, rocks hurled at (uninfected) passengers disembarking a cruise ship, and use of xenophobic terms to describe the virus itself.
Why do pandemics result in less compassion than other types of disasters?
One reason is fear. If we’re afraid of each other, it can drive us apart. In contrast to a hurricane, where people unite against a visible, external enemy, in a pandemic the enemy is invisible and can be inside those around us.
Additionally, the wisdom of “social distancing” and remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (e.g. 6 feet) from others, to limit the spread of the virus drives us apart, not together.
We urge you to think about adherence to social distancing as compassion for others. Researchers define compassion as the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering involving an authentic desire to help. Your “response” and “help” are compassionate actions.
Two groups are disproportionally being affected by COVID-19. The first group is the elderly and the chronically ill, who are at the highest risk of death with infection. The second group is front-line healthcare workers, who in the line of duty are developing severe manifestations of COVID-19 in caring for infected patients. In this moment, both groups are urgently in need of our collective compassion to reduce their suffering.
The most compassionate act that young healthy people can do is to be rigorous and relentless about social distancing. Your actions will reduce the incidence of COVID-19 and, by extension, protect these vulnerable populations.
We also must be mindful that other emergencies (e.g. heart attacks and strokes) do not stop during pandemics. Accordingly, compassionate measures to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 will prevent overwhelming our healthcare system for other sick patients as well.
Your social distancing is caring for others. If the human toll of COVID-19 proves to be less than it could have been, the compassionate commitment to social distancing among young healthy people will be the pivotal reason. Our young people have the opportunity to be our heroes.
Social distancing itself may have harmful (unintended) consequences on health as abundant research shows it can. In his book Together, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy analyzes decades of research on the health effects of human connection and the evidence is clear: loneliness kills. That is, if social distancing – which is good during a pandemic – produces social isolation, which is very bad.
Like COVID-19, loneliness may disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Right now, many elderly people are terrified and shutting themselves off from the world. Many are struggling with basic needs such as food. The fear and depression associated with their loneliness may be devastating and may lead to hopelessness, and loss of their will to live.
In scientific circles, hope is sometimes dismissed as a “Pollyanna” notion. We disagree. Hope, flowing from compassion, is the active conviction that despair will not have the last word.
Hope itself is not a strategy, but hope is necessary for every strategy – including our fight against COVID-19. We have hope because we have each other, and we will go through this together.
While it is crucial (and compassionate) to maintain a safe physical distance, we must not lose our sense of community and interconnectedness. We believe it is possible to maintain a safe physical distance and still stay connected, showing compassion and comforting others. They are not mutually exclusive.
We need to support each other, now more than ever. Please let the people around you know that you care about them. Please make a special effort with the elderly and infirm by dropping off a meal with an encouraging card to raise their spirits and their hope they can make it through.
A third vulnerable group is developing: those affected the most by a crippled economy. Disasters always impact poor people disproportionately, and COVID-19 is no exception. If you are fortunate to still have income, please be as generous as you can to those in need. Unprecedented times require unprecedented compassion.
Importantly, your compassion for others will also help you. There is compelling scientific evidence that compassion is not only beneficial for the receiver of compassion, but for the giver, too. Compassion for others can boost your own mental health and well-being, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression that you may be feeling yourself right now.
Compassion also strengthens resilience. Studies show compassion is an effective coping strategy that can reduce your own stress and help you regulate your own emotions. Compassion for others activates your nervous system in a way that has a calming effect and can help you forget your own worries, at least temporarily.
Research shows that compassion and cooperation are, in fact, highly contagious and spread rapidly in social networks. Show compassion, and let’s make this pandemic different than those in the past.
We are in this together, and we will get through this — together.
Stephen Trzeciak is the Chair of Medicine at Cooper University Health Care and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, where Kevin O’Dowd is Co-President/CEO, and Anthony Mazzarelli Co-President/CEO, and Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs.