Remembering Our Empathy

I’ve held off saying what I have to say for a while because I don’t want to engage in “both sides-ism.” When one side is Nazis, there are not “very fine people on both sides.” There are very fine people on one side, and Nazis on the other.

That said, please take my remarks in the context I intend them, applying to most average Americans, or even citizens of the world, but not to people who are hateful or violent extremists.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been observing a general lack of empathy, and I’m fed up with it. Right now, we are in the midst of two simultaneous (and linked) crises: a pandemic and an economic catastrophe. Both are bad.

We need to worry about both at the same time.

Depending on your predicament, one or the other might be more damaging to you at this moment. If you’re healthy and out of work, your immediate priority is probably economic. If you or your loved ones are at higher risk from COVID-19, or if you are an essential worker who is risking your health every day, your priority is probably your health.

But just because one is more important to you does not make the other unimportant. We all want a thriving economy, and we all want a healthy population and a low death toll.

I am lucky. I am still employed, working from home, and insured — and I am healthy. But I am going to delay graduation by a year because of the pandemic. I live alone, and it was lonely enough before I was legally barred from seeing any other humans besides essential workers at grocery stores and pharmacies.

There are all kinds of trivial disappointments and frustrations too — not getting to see a Mike Birbiglia show I had tickets for, canceling two trips home to see friends, delaying getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist. Who knew that fighting a pandemic would involve tooth decay?

My point is not that we should reopen society and allow thousands of people to die so I can go to the dentist. We need to save lives. It’s deeply troubling that the Trump administration is pushing to lift public health measures even when its own data says 3,000 people a day could die.

But we can make the right choice to save lives and be bummed out about everything we’re missing right now. Or scared, angry, anxious, etc.

Right now, a little empathy will go a long way for all of us. Every one of us is going through a roller coaster of difficult emotions, even people who are relatively lucky.

When I read Facebook posts opposing people violating social distancing orders or states without stay-at-home orders, I understand the anger and frustration that some people are endangering public health. But I also feel like we need to remember our empathy about how painful it is to comply with these orders, both economically and emotionally.

When all of this is over, we’re all going to be picking up the piece, and the cost will be lost lives or long-term health problems for many and a wrecked economy for all of us. We live in an unequal society, and the people with the least privilege are going to hurt the most on both counts.

Can’t we find a middle ground where we all worry about and address both public health and the economy at the same time? Rather than thinking about saving jobs vs. saving lives, can’t we look for ways to save lives while doing all we can to reduce or mitigate economic hardship too?

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.