The Pandemic of Compassion
The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crash is humankind’s dominant narrative for 2020. Terms like “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” were unknown in January. By March, they had become the way of life for people all over the globe.
The pandemic and crash have generated unprecedented fear, as well as exposed a range of social malaise. Hate crimes. Hoarding. Unreliable statistics. Politicians jockeying for political gain. Competition for scarce resources. Fake news. The collapse of entire industries. Huckster cures. Government incompetence. Profiteering. Unreported deaths. Lying. Exploitation of the gullible. Marginalization of the socially disadvantaged. The breakdown of medical systems.
It’s easy to become cynical and paranoid when there’s this much ugliness in the world. It’s easy to look at the news headlines and feel panic, mistrust, and overwhelm.
Yet when you look for the positive aspects of the crisis, you can see them all around you. Ordinary people are performing daily acts of kindness in every corner of the world. Take a long view and you’ll see that humankind is in the middle of what I call a pandemic of compassion.
Near the start of an epidemic, clear statistics are hard to find. Numbers get revised as more information becomes available. The best information in early 2020 suggested that the coronavirus death rate was about 1%. That means that of every 100 people who contract the virus, one dies.
Roughly half of those who contract the virus are asymptomatic; the virus produces symptoms so mild that the infected people fail to notice them. The death rate of the elderly is high—up to 13% in some studies. Young and healthy people have a small chance of dying; by some estimates, it’s about one in 400.
Faced with these odds, countries, companies, nonprofits, universities, hospitals, and research labs have been collaborating on developing vaccines and antidotes as fast as they can. They’re finding new methods to raise the level of antibodies in our immune systems. The degree of institutional cooperation on our planet today is unprecedented.
On the level of individual human action, we’re witnessing daily acts of compassion. Total them and they amount to billions of deeds of kindness and self-sacrifice. Here are a few of those billions of examples:
- Health advocate Héctor Ramírez is creating a food pantry for seniors and disabled people. “As a disabled person, I am always planning for things. I feel very anxious about this. . .outbreak. So I decided to do something. . .I am going to make food boxes for my senior and disabled neighbors and deliver them to their homes,” he said in a YouTube video.
- In Iran, mosques are closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Volunteers have turned some into centers where they sew face masks and assemble food hampers for those in need.
- When her elderly neighbors were too scared to visit a crowded grocery store, Rebecca Mehra did their shopping for them. Elderly people have been helped by their neighbors millions of times all over the globe. Canada has coined the term “caremongering” to describe the helping phenomenon; caremongering is the opposite in spirit and action to fearmongering.
- A group of Japanese students whose school was closed were disappointed that they would not get to experience a graduation ceremony, so they decided to use the online game Minecraft to conduct a digital ceremony. “They spent all day online together playing games and laughing. I’m glad they all had fun,” wrote one parent.
- After Houston restaurants closed their dining rooms and began offering only takeout service, an anonymous couple took action. After spending $90 on their meal, they left a cash tip of $1,900, with another $7,500 on a credit card. Their note read: “Hold tip to pay your guys over the next few weeks.”
- In New Jersey, 11-year-old Jayden Perez asked his mother to buy hand sanitizers in bulk at the end of February. “He decided to donate 1,000 hand sanitizers to his local school district and an additional 150 to the police station, fire department, and public library,” she said.
When you shift your focus from the ever-present diet of bad news served up by mass media, you see an abundance of good news. Faced with a common crisis, despite the paranoia and uncertainty, billions of people are choosing caremongering over fearmongering.
Take that death rate of 1 in 100 and flip it around. Seen in reverse, we observe that 99% of those who contract the virus live. For those who are healthy and young, the odds are much better.
Yet with an average chance of 1 in 100 dying, people are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for others. By the billions, ordinary people are changing their lives so that others won’t get sick.
They’re doing this at great inconvenience to themselves. They can’t move about freely. They can’t visit their friends or loved ones. They can’t go to work. Those 99 people are limiting their lives in all these ways so that one person doesn’t have to die.
That one person that they’re protecting may be somebody they don’t even know.
The one person who dies usually has another medical condition. Most of the coronavirus deaths are people who are ill already. They have conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease. Many are elderly, closer to the ends of their lives than the beginnings.
What we’re witnessing every day is 99 people radically restricting their lives so that one person who they don’t even know personally and is sick anyway has a lower risk of catching the virus and dying. Never before in human history have so many people willingly suffered for the sake of so few.
That’s the ratio we need to pay attention to. Faced with the overlapping crises and ugliness in the world, billions of people are defaulting to kindness.
I coined a term for this: the pandemic of compassion.
Looking past the fear, we see a human species participating in the greatest act of collective compassion we have ever seen on planet Earth.
Ninety-nine out of 100 people are willing to lose their jobs, see entire industries disappear, confine themselves to home, lose personal contact with their neighbors, and accept the shutdown of the economy. The 99 are doing this so that one person who is sick and elderly—who they may not even know—can live.
This didn’t happen in 1300 when the Black Death swept through Europe and Asia, killing about half the population. It didn’t happen during the great flu epidemic in 1918, which killed more people than WWI. This global outpouring of compassion isn’t typical of the way that human beings have collectively responded to tragedy. In this pandemic, we’re treating every life as sacred, willing to disrupt our lives completely to protect those at risk.
We look back at past leaps in humankind’s moral and political evolution with admiration. For instance, consider the wave of democracy that swept the globe from 1750 to 1850. For thousands of years before that, people had been ruled by monarchs, oligarchs, cabals, religious fanatics, strongmen, and other forms of unrepresentative government. Suddenly, within 100 years, we changed our collective minds. Democracy became the norm rather than the exception.
The same global mind change happened in the case of slavery. Between roughly 1790 and 1870, in less than 100 years, we as a human species collectively changed our minds about the propriety of enslaving other people. Slavery had been normal for millions of years. Suddenly, in less than a century, we changed our minds, and it was gone.
In 1890, women could not vote in any country in the world. For the recorded history of the species, the political voice of one half of the entire human population went unheard. Then we changed our collective minds. Between 1893 and 1920, country after country gave women the vote.
There were many reasons for these positive social upheavals. Compassion played a major role. People who had all the power—kings, slaveholders, men—were able to imagine the suffering of those who were disenfranchised. The mighty had no incentive to share their power, but they did anyway.
Other factors such as fear, self-interest, and political advantage certainly played a role in these changes. But to see the changes only in those terms ignores the altruism that runs so strongly through our species. Compassion opened the door. To be able to put yourself in the shoes of someone less fortunate than yourself, voluntarily share your power, and take action to care for them, seeing you and me in the circle of “we,” is a remarkable shift in human behavior.
When in time you tell your grandchildren about 2020, you’ll remember the fear and chaos. You’re also likely to see it as a turning point in the evolution of human values.
You’ll remember your own personal acts of compassion. The elderly neighbor for whom you bought groceries. The fearful friend for whom you stumbled for comforting words. The panicked small business owner whose loan application you helped prepare. The child at whom you smiled, reassuring her that all is well. You’ll recall the people you helped and the inconveniences you endured for others.
You’ll remember the acts of compassion done to you and for you. The nurse whose smiling mouth you couldn’t see behind her mask, but whose eyelids crinkled with warmth. The stranger who moved to the opposite sidewalk when you crossed paths, but gave you a grinning “hi” to celebrate your shared humanity. The researcher who slept on a cot in his lab, working 80-hour weeks while seeking a cure. The people who mailed your prescriptions and stocked the shelves of your neighborhood grocery store.
When you look back on this time, you might well remember the pandemic of compassion, and declare with me: This may have been the noblest hour in the history of our species.