How do we preserve our empathy in the grip of coronavirus?

Jennifer O’Connell: How do you navigate tightrope between responsibility and getting on with it?

Pillorying people who have fallen ill has to stop. Bad enough to have contracted Covid-19 – how much worse to also find yourself vilified as a ‘super-spreader’. Photograph: Koen Van Weel/EPA

Pillorying people who have fallen ill has to stop. Bad enough to have contracted Covid-19 – how much worse to also find yourself vilified as a ‘super-spreader’. Photograph: Koen Van Weel/EPA

 

It’s hard to know what the appropriate reaction is, isn’t it? I suspect many of us are grappling with similar dilemmas. How do you navigate the tightrope between being responsible about the risks of coronavirus, with the need to get on with your life? How do you prepare for the juggernaut barrelling towards us without succumbing to the Toilet Paper Wars?

When you’re faced with a fast-evolving, global story that seems to churn out a new and more catastrophic headline every 15 minutes, it can be hard not to fall prey to the belief that everything is so much worse than we’re being told.

And it’s not as though the facts themselves aren’t worrying enough.

If you’re of a nervous disposition: well done for getting this far, but you might want to skip the next paragraph.

Community spirit used to be about coming together; now it’s about staying apart

Chief among the things we do know is that the numbers sick on the island will continue to rise. As first reported last weekend, health officials are modelling various scenarios, including one in which 1.9 million people – 40 per cent of the population – are infected, half falling ill over the next few weeks. Those are terrifying numbers. We know 80 per cent will get a mild case and recover. But in Italy, about 10 per cent have required ICU treatment. More terrifying numbers.

This is a miserable, mentally-exhausting time for people in vulnerable groups – older people; those with underlying health conditions; people with health-related anxiety conditions; people with unrelated chronic conditions, who know that an overburdened health system will struggle to meet their needs. All of their friends and family members.

But no matter how natural and unstoppable panic feels now, it will subside. Even at the most optimistic projections, Covid-19 is here until the summer. If it fades then, it is likely to come back in the autumn. A vaccine is likely to be between 12 and 24 months away.

It’s not easy to maintain a state of hypervigilance and anxiety over that kind of period. It isn’t wise either. Panic plus urgency almost always leads unintended consequences.

Keeping a lid on it is not just helpful from a societal point of view, it is important from a health perspective. Stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, and impacts your ability to fight off infections, including coronavirus.

So we have to find a way of living with the heightened health risk. And we have to find a way of living with each other during it. On one level, we know what this implies. Living with each other during coronavirus means, in so far as possible, keeping our distance.

Community spirit used to be about coming together; now it’s about staying apart. The evidence from China, Hong Kong and Singapore is that aggressive “social distancing”, an unfortunately totalitarian-sounding phrase, works.

There’s an even greater challenge at stake: the question of how we preserve our empathy for each other when we are afraid

The bad news is that “aggressive” really means that. Are we prepared for what similar measures would mean for our freedom, economic wellbeing and sense of individuality?

There’s an even greater challenge at stake, and one worth thinking about as we embark on the week when social media fills with memes about Irish people’s adorable eccentricities, our Tayto and Penneys fetishes. It is the question of how we preserve our empathy for each other when we are afraid.

During the early days of the outbreak, there was plenty to suggest this could prove the biggest challenge of all. People took to radio chat shows to mutter darkly about people “on skiing holidays in northern Italy”, in tones that suggested they were referring to people who had taken their children on a half-term trip to the red light district of Tijuana. WhatsApp groups, and some journalists’ email inboxes, filled with furious demands that precise locations and even individuals affected by the disease be identified.

Pillorying people unlucky enough to have fallen ill has to stop. Bad enough to contract Covid-19; how much worse to also find yourself vilified as a “super-spreader” – like the British man in his 50s who caught it in Singapore, infected 11 other people in a ski resort, and found his face plastered all over the papers?

Managing the outbreak still depends on contact tracing, which depends on people feeling able to honestly disclose everyone with whom they have been in close contact.

These are the real challenges for those of us not working on the frontline. Not the best song to sing while washing your hands, but how to react responsibly, without losing our sense of solidarity. How to preserve our capacity for empathy when we are frightened, and worried we’re losing time, and imagining the very worst. How to hold on to perspective, without being complacent.

Recently, I spoke to someone who works in international development about the preparation measures under way across Africa. There’s no real panic there, he said. For large numbers of people to be at significant risk from coronavirus, they have to live long enough.

Many people in African nations, where the average life expectancy is 61 for men and 65 for women, don’t have that privilege. If coronavirus does nothing else, it should remind us that, relatively speaking, we’re lucky.

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