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Pandemics Breed Fear. Empathy is the Cure.

Posted by Joe Mayall on May 26, 2020 7:00:00 AM

In normal times, society rolls out of bed in the morning with one certainty: the course of the day is uncertain. Every morning, we leave our houses with a plan of where we will go and what we will do, but we accept that at some point, our itinerary will be altered by something we cannot control.


Yet, this doesn’t scare us, because we assume that somewhere, there is someone, in a station above our own, who is in control. If we are unexpectedly assigned a new project at work — that’s fine, the boss knows what’s best for the company. If we bypass a fender bender on our commute — unfortunate, but the police will be along momentarily. We even see global events that can change the course of history as the product of architects and overseers; presidents and generals are orchestrating tranquil summits and chaotic wars to ensure everything is going to plan.


Yet, for the first time in living memory, there isn’t a single figure we, the average person, can look to as a source of omnipotence. The COVID-19 pandemic has enshrouded the globe and all its inhabitants in a fog of ignorance.


The virus is novel: even those who have spent their lives studying pathogens are ignorant on some of our most pressing questions: can it be contracted more than once? Will it evolve, rendering potential vaccines obsolete? The experts don’t know, and so neither do we. Without the answers to these questions, our more personal ones, like “when can I go back to work?” and “when can I hug my mother?” are left unanswered.


From the soil of uncertainty grows the Hemlock of fear. Just like the pathogen, the symptoms of fear manifest differently in each of us. Some will grow hostile and lash out at the few people they can still interact with. Some will slip into depression, not seeing any reason to escape their bed only to be confined in their home. Anger, sadness, hopelessness, and erraticism will all become commonplace in our temporarily desolate society.


But like every other disease, fear has an antidote: empathy.


 As we await answers, let’s try to be empathetic. Give everyone, family members and strangers alike, the benefit of the doubt. If a colleague is terse in an email — let it slide; maybe their loved one isn’t feeling well. When a fellow motorist cuts you off —  no need to honk; distracted by the gravity of the moment, they probably didn’t even see you.   


Assume everyone is scared, because they are. Assume everyone is worried about their family, because they are. Assume everyone is bewildered and petrified about what the world will look like on the other side of the pandemic, because they are.


Fear causes us to act differently. It corrupts our consciousness like a pathogen corrupts the respiratory system. It forces us to disregard collective social norms and individual morals, coercing us to behave in a manner that we never would if we were free from its infection. When someone is impolite or ill-mannered, let it slide.


Remember, that’s not them. That’s their fear.

Topics: Culture, United States

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