The Need for Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Apr 1 2020 – The experience and interpretation of the Coronavirus pandemic oscillates between the personal and the general spheres. The official discourse and measures taken by authorities have a direct impact on our lives, change our daily existence and foster worries for the future. A dark cloud of uncertainty hovers above us. What do decision makers know? What can they do? What can we do? Many of us are secluded in our own homes, others in wards or hospitals, or even alone and far away from the ones they love:

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years. 1

When we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis some comfort might be found in literature, particularly now when so many of us are quarantined. Literature may help us to assess our existence from another point of view.

Many authors have been outsiders, i.e. they have felt being “a step away from others”. This can create a crippling feeling of loneliness, though also provide an ability to observe and comment on the behaviour of others. A European example of such an author is Albert Camus, who actually wrote a novel he called L’Étranger, The Outsider, about a man separated from “the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual.” Since Mersault, the novel’s main character did “not cry on his mothers funeral” Camus asserts that he deserved Society’s condemnation. 2

In the novel La Peste, the Plague,3 which Camus wrote five years after L’Étranger his perspective has shifted. His main characters are still encountering an absurd existence, though they are now generally experiencing it together. His own life (he suffered from chronic tuberculosis), and in particular his experiences with the French resistance during World War II, made Camus believe there is goodness and compassion in the depth of most human hearts. This in spite of the narcissism, cruelty and, above all, indifference to human suffering that might characterize the actions of many decision makers.

In La Peste most of the characters confront the pestilence in an undramatic and stubborn manner. They do not glorify heroism or power, instead they ”are obscurely engaged in saving, not destroying, and this in the name of no ideology.” Camus wrote about what he called the small heroism of common people, in contrast to the ”large cowardice” of powerful decision makers.

The novel tells a fictitious story about a plague sweeping an Algerian city, asking questions related to an unfathomable destiny and the human condition. The characters in his novel range from medical doctors, to trapped tourists, fugitives, criminals, soldiers and politicians, all demonstrating the effects a pandemic have on a multifaceted community.

A medical doctor who lives comfortably in an apartment building experiences the upsetting death of the concierge and thus suspects that an epidemic is approaching. He contacts the town authorities, though his fears are dismissed by an assurance that they cannot be founded on the basis of a single death. No measures are taken to mitigate a possible plague. The doctor becomes more or less appeased by the experts´ conclusive opinions and like everyone else he begins to envisage the danger the town faces as ”unreal”. Nevertheless, he continues to feel uneasy, in particular since his wife is away on a sanatorium. A few days after the worried doctor´s visit to the Town Hall the city’s eighty hospital beds are taken and their occupants soon begin to die. Within a short while the epidemic has killed off half the town’s population of two hundred thousands. Doctor Rieux works day and night to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and it is his job to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand religious or political purposes. However, others oppose the scourge due to their religious convictions, or a high-minded moral code. Most of the people who abide to extraordinary measures and sacrifice their well-being for others are just like Doctor Rieux doing so without any fuss. They know they cannot win their struggle against death, their loved ones are dying all around them, but nevertheless, out of a sense of duty and compassion they continue to help one another.

On the contrary, most politicians and community leaders behave in an erratic and often brutal manner, devoid of considerations for others. Such persons are trapped within their own power games, suspecting that ”the masses” are dangerous and volatile. Their Draconian measures are often supported by violence, instilling fear, or even indifference, instead of cooperation and compassion.

When the plague subsides everyone is scarred and changed. They have survived, but many of their loved ones have died and they view existence from a new perspective. Most of those who endured the affliction have become stronger and more sensitive persons, though others cannot cope with afterlife, some commit suicide, others become crazy. However, all in all, the authorities´ predictions about violence and mayhem were not fulfilled. People proved to be more resilient and compassionate than they even could imagine themselves to be.

Camus´s powerful vision in La Peste coincides with observations made by the U.S. author Rebecca Solnit. While studying human behaviour during several recent natural disasters she came to the conclusion that astonishingly many people not only rose to the occasion, but did so with force and joy, revealing an ordinarily unmet yearning for community, purposefulness, and meaningful work. Her A Paradise Built in Hell4 becomes a tale about moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity arising amidst disasters´ grief and disruption. Books like the ones of Solnit and Camus indicate a vision of what social systems could become if they were less authoritarian and fearful, and more collaborative and local.

They indicate that most of the panicking and selfish behaviour originates from governing elites fearful of the threat that ”common” people will not get along without them and accordingly oust them from office. Many politicians become victims of an abstract thinking that makes them prone to intervene without listening to the needs and fears of the victims of a disaster and thus run the risk that their actions might even be to the detriment of a devastated community.

Is such thinking behind the muddled messages of a world leader like Donald Trump? For more than two months he was in a state of denial about an upcoming pandemic, thus putting millions at risk. Against all expertise Trump predicted a worst case scenario where ”cases in a few days time” would go down from a ”handful to zero”. It was only after the stock market sell-off increased in speed that he finally recognized that some action was needed.

Trump´s lack of empathy is flagrant. He and his minions continue to treat the coronavirus as a PR problem, a political problem, and a business problem, downplaying the severity of the pandemic by urging people to continue life like everything is normal. A week ago, Trump tweeted: ”We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Accordingly, the world´s most powerful man casts doubt on his resolve in the fight against a mass killer.

Trump acts like the power greedy politicians in Camus´ and Solnit´s books, who abided in an absurd and secluded bubble made up of their own greed and narcissism. Persons unaware of Kant´s categorical imperative to act in such a way that their behaviour might become a universal law, or as former homeland security advisor Thomas Bossert expressed it: ”It’s reasonable to plan for the U.S. to top the list of countries with the most cases in approximately one week. This does NOT make social intervention futile. It makes it imperative!”5 This was stated more than a week ago and the U.S. is now topping the list of Coronavirus afflicted individuals, while Trump is still dragging his feet.

1 Seth, Vikram (1990) All You Who Sleep Tonight. New York: Knopf/Doubleday.
2 Camus, Albert (2000) The Outsider. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
3 Camus, Albert (2002) The Plague. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
4 Solnit, Rebecca (2010) A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Rise in Disaster. London: Penguin Books.
5 Haberman, Maggie and David E. Sanger (2020) ”Trump Says Coronavirus Cure Cannot ´Be Worse Than the Problem Itself´,” The New York Times, March 23.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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