COVID-19 has brought the world to a grinding halt. The economy is in turmoil as governments have urged businesses to temporarily close or adjust their business practices to ensure social distancing as to slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus. And, our medical systems are overwhelmed as COVID-19 rapidly spreads across the globe rendering more and more people ill. The uncertainty about the prognosis and treatment of COVID-19 as well as our capacity to respond to the critically ill has incited fear across the globe. Even the most pragmatic of us are rattled by the eerily apocalyptic gestalt brought down upon us by COVID-19.
Even in isolation, we are unable to escape the hourly updates about the possible trajectories COVID-19 can take as it spreads like a viral wildfire we are unable to control. Like a terrifying thriller that we watch through our fingers as we hide our faces, we are unable to turn away from the horrifying images and headlines pertaining to mounting sick whilst holding our breath for the end to near. Much like a B-rated movie, myriad opinions abound about COVID-19's onset, course, and treatment. I can only speak for myself, though I know I am not alone in saying this, I am finding it increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction amidst the growing hysteria as we watch governments and health authorities anxiously battle an invisible foe. I find it dizzying at best and terrifying at worst.
What I find most troubling is that it is more important for us to be well versed in the pathogenesis of COVID-19 and how to slow its transmission, but less informed on its psychosocial effects or outcomes. No one seems to be talking about the fear and vulnerability that COVID-19 has caused the Populus to experience. Nor are we talking about the unintended side-effects of social distancing, emotional isolation much less the xenophobic or racist behaviours displayed by some in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. My friends of colour who are from China report discriminatory behaviour that is overt but more often covert.
Additionally, the looting like the behaviour of those stocking up on non-perishables and toilet paper at local grocers demonstrates a callous disregard for those on income assistance, students, or the working class who do not have the savings or reserves to reactively purchase goods until their money comes in by which point there may be no goods to purchase. The Canadian ethos is purportedly about the collective good, but when faced with a viral adversary that threatens our lives, we forget our common humanity.
Despite the reality that we are all in this together, we are behaving as though it's every man for himself. These are the psychosocial effects of COVID-19 that we are not talking about. We herald ourselves conscientious beings, but there is one base instinct we cannot seem to shake, which is our survival panic that is motivated by our primal fear of extinction. The Darwinian adage ‘survival of the fittest’ seems to aptly describe how a majority of us have responded.
The irony here is that Darwin himself argued that for humanity, our survival does not rest with the fittest, but the connected. An article I recently read urged us to not mistake social distancing for emotional distancing. The author was speaking to the importance of remaining connected whilst maintaining a physical distance. Nevertheless, I believe we need to take this further to include not distancing ourselves emotionally from how we behave when we are afraid.
I have never been more convinced of the importance of emotional education than I am now as I observe how the world around me is responding to COVID-19. Fear has caused us to behave in judgemental, racist, and thoughtless ways. This is not the first time we have responded this way in the face of a pandemic. Whilst I did not grow up during the AIDS crisis as I was born in 1986, we responded in similar ways with fear and stigmatization.
We mustn’t forget that HIV/AIDS remains a pandemic today, one we all ‘forget’ about because it is no longer an urgent ‘public’ health concern but continues to have profound health consequences globally. In the late 1990s when I was a pre-teen, I remember my biological mother being fearful of my uncle who was living with HIV. She cited misinformation about how the virus was transmitted. I remember being afraid of him. I later felt so much guilt for being so afraid of him because I was misinformed. Fear prevented my biological mother from being able to test her beliefs and to critically appraise the information she was accessing.
I found myself wondering... have we not learned anything from the HIV/AIDS pandemic, SARS, H1N1 in terms of how to navigate the emotional and psychosocial dimensions of public health crises? So much of our attention is focused on communicating information about how viruses work, but not about how we can support each other through the fear they engender. Whilst fear is an adaptive emotion with an evolutionary purpose, how do we use it to bring us together in times of crisis rather than divide us?
I believe compassion through emotional education is the key. Dr. Kristen Neff and her colleagues remind us that the science of self-compassion helps us hone our evolutionary drives by downregulating distress. Our fear response is mitigated by compassion for ourselves and others. Dr. Neff breaks compassion down into three attributes common humanity, kindness, and mindfulness. In the midst of a pandemic, common humanity is a reminder that our best chance of survival depends on how we care for each other through the equal distribution of social goods.
Moreover, common humanity reminds us that our collective capacity to problem-solve brings us closer to a solution that meets the common good. Kindness facilitate social cohesion and enable us to care for one another whilst mindfulness helps us to take a step back to observe the problems that face us without being reactive. Compassion is our greatest strength and is one of our most potent antidotes in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Compassion is the life blood that animates our sentient nature and it is in us to give.
The practice of public health and medicine without compassion is simply science. And, if science alone was enough, many of the problems science has set out to solve would have been ameliorated. However, as evidence has it, science alone has failed to remedy the most pressing problems facing humanity today, including pandemics. In the case of COVID-19, we have seen that the tiny actions of conscientious and compassionate people have played a significant role in flattening the curve in other areas of the world. We are better together than we are apart. Pandemics become crises when we forget this simple truth. This is not our first pandemic nor will it be our last, but alas here we still stand. The question remains will we be united or divided in our attempts to survive?