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Empathy in the age of the coronavirus

What does empathy in the age of coronavirus look like? Two words to get started: social distancing.

Social distancing makes sense and is necessary; but social distancing has a cost and an impact.

No hugs allowed. No shaking hands. Bumping elbows? Questionable. “Hug therapy”? There is such an innovation, as the right kind of hug seems to release endorphins – but it is on the ropes. Not good news, though perhaps only a temporary – months long? – setback.

Do not overlook the obvious good news. Some jobs can be performed remotely using

Follow medical doctor's orders - keep calm - and wash your hands!

Follow medical doctor’s orders – keep calm – and wash your hands!

online methods and Skype-like facilities such as Zoom or Signal. Many businesses already operate secure virtual  private networks. Many kinds of consulting, coaching, guidance, and talk therapy can occur via telecomm, and, though aspects of empathic relatedness may be lost or stretched thin, good enough results can be attained to make it worthwhile to try. Other situations are more problematic.

The social distancing recommendation is strained to the breaking point when it comes to first responders such as doctors and nurses (police, fire, ambulance drives, and others).

Yes, one can take a throat and nose swab without too much interaction, but it is not going to happen from six feet away. Moreover, one does not know what is the cause of the patient’s symptoms so further “laying on of hands” is often required. Thus, the risk. I acknowledge that it is deeply cynical, but I have to note: “Just because we have a germ phobia does not mean we cannot get sick.” We can – and do.

Here the empathy lesson is that empathy is a two way street and the first responders may require reasonable accommodation – and empathy from the community including the patients. So if the doctor shows up in a HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suit, it is not for lack of empathy, it is due to needing to screen dozens of people and stay healthy to screen even more. See above on the cost of social distancing.

What to do when there are no masks and gowns, or MDs and nurses are asked to wear yesterday’s contaminated stuff, are the tough questions. Some hospitals (and families), who have fabrication (including sewing) skills, are making their own. Others are calling the media and blowing the whistle on this appalling situation of first responders at unnecessary risk. All are madly rushing about trying to close the barn door now that the horses [of the apocalypse?!] have escaped. [Update: paragraph added: 03/21/2020.]

Once again, empathy is about community and responsibility. Here is the empathic moment according to celebrity MD, Sanjay Gupta:

“How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health,” Gupta said on the air with CNN. “Never, I think, have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to that occasion.” [Kate Shepard and Allison Chiu reporting The Morning Mix March 18, 2020: ‘I’ve never seen Dr. Sanjay Gupta like this’: Strollers, joggers in locked down San Francisco spark anger on CNN: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/18/coronavirus-cnn-sanjay-gupta/ ]

UPDATE: March 22, 2020:

University of Chicago Medicine infectious diseases expert Dr. Emily Landon spoke during the Illinois governor’s COVID-19 press conference on March 20, 2020. Hear her explain why the statewide order to stay at home is crucial to protecting everyone.

“Our health care system doesn’t have any slack. There are no empty wards waiting for patients or nurses waiting in the wings. We barely even have enough masks for the nurses that we have. Looking back to the last time, we were– limited tools and having a dangerous infection spread quickly was the beginning of the 1918 pandemic.

“Two cities in America made different choices about how to proceed and when only a few patients were affected. St. Louis shut itself down and sheltered in place. But Philadelphia went ahead with a huge parade to celebrate those going off to war.

“A week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun. And thousands were dead, many more than in St. Louis. This is a cautionary tale for our time. Things are already tough in Illinois hospitals, including mine. There is no vaccine or readily available antiviral to help stem the tide.

“All we have to slow the spread is social distance. And if we let every single patient with this infection infect three more people and then each of them infect two or three more people, there won’t be a hospital bed when my mother can’t breathe very well or when yours is coughing too much.” Do your part – follow Dr Landon’s guidance. Meanwhile –

You have got to get the black humor here. The situation in Washington DC (and on CNN) is serious but not hopeless; the situation in Milan, Italy, is hopeless but not serious – people under lock down as the death toll rises are going out onto their balconies and singing.

The mother of an eight grader in New Rochelle, New York, who comes home with a fever, is leaving trays of food outside his bedroom door and everyone is eating off of paper plates. This is what empathy looks like in the age of the coronavirus.

This is not a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit. Six guys in HAZMAT [hazardous materials] suits descend on the family in New Rochelle and make them sign an agreement to stay home for two weeks. They signed. It could be worse. This too shall pass, and presumably the kid (whose fever is going down) will have enhanced (if not unconditional) immunity and can himself serve as a first responder once he grows up.  [See Jason Riley’s Report from New York’s Containment Zone March 17, 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/report-from-new-yorks-containment-zone-11584485597?cx_testId=3&cx_testVariant=cx_2&cx_artPos=3#cxrecs_s.%5D

Well and good, except where’s the empathy?

Empathy is all about boundaries and crossing boundaries with understanding, receptivity, responsiveness, respect, dignity, courtesy, humor (when appropriate), affection, affinity, and, at the risk of circular reasoning, empathic relatedness.

So what are the proper boundaries in a coronavirus epidemic? Empathy lessons 101 teach us that the most fearsome thing is the unknown – the Hold that thought. The unknown is stressful. The unknown leaves one feeling isolated. The unknown inspires anxiety. The unknown creates an opening for alternative facts, half truths, and total nonsense.

As noted in this blog previously, you know how in the vintage black and white monster movies, once the audience actually sees the Swamp Thing, which is obviously a guy in a lizard suit, it is a lot less scary? The creature may still be disgusting, but it is no longer nearly as scary. The scary part is when the heroine is innocently combing her hair and the swamp thing (which is “off camera” and the audience cannot yet see) is silently sneaking up behind her.

Doubtful this is the Zombie Apocalypse, but it puts me in mind of that U2 classic “Mysterious Ways”: “We’ll be living underground. Eating from a can. Runnin’ away from what you don’t understand. Love.” [Insert dramatic base line here.]

All right, so we are not yet ready for the Zombie Apocalypse, but some people are acting like it – like Zombies, that is. Especially unfortunate is that a few of them hold high public office or are media personalities. But we have got to work with what we’ve got for the time being. Other people are totally “business as usual.” Both extremes need to cut that out! Instead think! Think:  community and responsibility.

I am inspired in this thought – community and responsibility – by Jason Bridges. From a practical point of view, Jason Bridges, a professor of philosophy of mind and of Ludwig Wittgenstein (University of Chicago), writes eloquently in an unpublished but widely circulating email of community and responsibility in the time of coronavirus:

“Crises like this lay bare what is always anyway true: we are all members of community. To belong to a community is to be responsible for it” (Unpublished email 2020).

Though Bridges does not use the word “empathy,” this is the empathic moment. Those of us who are not at an especially high risk may usefully ask: “Is doing this responsible?” (“This” being many forms of in-person social contact we have taken for granted.)

The issue – and conflict – is that empathy is supposed to bring us closer –emotionally and spiritually. However, given the kind of physical embodied creatures that we humans are, emotional and spiritual closeness are often mediated by physical, bodily closeness (though crucially not always). (See above – back to “hug therapy.”)

We seem intrinsically to be a species that likes to congregate and get close to one another, at least on many occasions. Some cultures – Italian, Spanish, French, Southern (?) – seem to do this more so than others – Scandinavian, German, Northern (?). America, China, and Russia are vast and include some of each.

Thus, we return to the crucial issue of social distancing and its impact – and cost – with an illness spreading through community contagion.

By cancelling in person events at church, work, school, sports, theatre, and so on, in order to save lives, one is doing exactly the thing predicted to expand loneliness, isolation, detachment, and risking irrational behavior such as hording and opportunistic price increases. You solve one problem; create another. That’s another reason this is a crisis – the dominoes are still falling.

You see the dilemma? Going to church is not usually regarded as an intrinsically empathic activity, but lots of people do it because the experience of community addresses their need for empathy, to be acknowledged as a whole person, to feel included. Same idea with other community events.

Research shows that loneliness can be as bad for one’s health as smoking cigarettes or obesity (see John Cacioppo, (2008), Loneliness, Human Nature, and the Need for Social Connection, New York: W. W. Norton). Loneliness causes stress, reducing the immune system response, and triggering inflammation. Fear also causes such an immune response decline; and, heaven knows, the unknown – including aspects of the COVID-19 situation – is the most fearsome thing. So here is the rock and here is the hard place – what is one to do?

Just doing some brain storming here. The line at the polling station during the March 17, 2020 election had people waiting six feet apart. The frozen custard shop was reconfiguring its service line with markers on the ground at six-foot intervals. Given that the store is often jammed with children pushing forward, it is going to be interesting to see how that works.

Tips and techniques for maintaining and expanding social contact include: pick up the phone and talk to someone. Do not merely text, but have a conversation. Same idea using video conferencing such as Skype, Zoom, or Signal. Talk with one or two friends a day –once again, talk, not text. Do something for someone. It does not have to be volunteering to get the first coronavirus vaccination human trials, and dealing with the uncertainty whether it will cause your children to be born with tails. Do something small. Make a trip to the store for the senior couple next door. Help with chores, homework, or whatever you can contribute.

Although exercise and mindfulness do not usually require talking with others, they can be done in such a way that social distancing is maintained – for example, running outdoors or sitting indoors in a spacious room. These reduce loneliness and related stress.

I will not further comment on the detailed recommendation as numerous resources are available from WHO and the CDC (other relevant local authorities should be included here), frequently updated as we learn more and more about what to do or not to do. I accept the guidance and so should you, dear reader.

Now I agree events need to be cancelled due to the risk of community contagion. What I am asking is whether, for the time being, people can get their head around sitting two sneezes distance apart (in accordance with present CDC guidelines) and the pastor holds two services – one for seniors and one for those less at risk. More work? Yes, but perhaps doable just the same. (Okay, “two sneezes” means the six

Seems like the right idea to me for so many reason. Artistic activity boosts the immune system? Might be worth a try, though tragically the local Italian newspapers are crowded with obituaries. The hypothesis is that the warm, affectionate, cultural practices of getting in close for conversation and food and Catholic mass and so on, did not work well, rapidly spreading a highly contagious pathogen. No good deed goes unpunished!? Yet good deeds in abundance are many and even more are needed.

So, once again, what does empathy in the time of coronavirus look like?

As noted, it also looks like the Italian people, who are suffering severe fatalities in the pandemic, getting out on their balconies and singing – serenading the neighborhood.

It looks like maintaining a healthy routine of exercise, diet, communicating at arms lengths and with electronic media, keeping calming and carrying on – I mean – washing your hands.

It also looks like young healthy people making grocery shopping runs for senior citizens who are still healthy but reluctant to venture out. It looks like shoppers buying two cartons of eggs and two packages of toilet paper instead of two dozen.(What were these people thinking? Right, they were not thinking – that is the point – as Hannah Arendt noted long ago, not thinking can provide an opening for evil to get a foothold.)

It also looks like employers keeping staff on the payroll even though business is in a downturn.

It looks like insurers forgoing their monopoly rents and agreeing to reimburse first responders for their services in treating all potential patients without condition or qualification.

It also looks like government support for big pharma, which has a chance to shine [for a change!], in developing a vaccine (and anti-viral treatments) on a crash, moon-shot-style basis, which vaccine, in turn, has to be given-away to the planet.

Paraphrasing Jason Bridges, crises like this lay bear the weakness and strengths of the community. It puts me in mind of the kid’s game “The Cooties.” Some seven-year-old yells “You’ve got the cooties!” It is the game of tag. The kids all runs around like crazy playing tag – the opposite of social distancing, yet a transformation of it – because you cannot get close or you might be “tagged.” Fortunately, no one dies of the cooties, unlike COVID-19. Thus the breakdowns of empathy of the community are exposed – hoarding, stigmatizing, opportunistic behavior, boundary violations, beggar thy neighbor behavior.

Never was it truer that good fences (not walls!) make good neighbors; but there is a gate in the fence and over the gate is inscribed the word “Empathy.” Every breakdown, when handled with empathy, has the possibility of a breakthrough – a breakthrough in sustaining and crossing boundaries with expanded understanding, generosity, humor (as appropriate and inappropriate), responsiveness, receptivity, respect, random acts of kindness, dignity, and our shared humanity.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project