The test of human compassion in the COVID-19 crisis

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The test of human compassion in the COVID-19 crisis


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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If there is one thing that has been made clear to the global community by the coronavirus it is that we are radically interdependent; that no person or country is an island unto himself or itself; and that our common survival is intimately bound up in the welfare of the neighbour.

I know this sounds philosophical and may even come across as simplistic, especially to those whose lives are already defined by compassion and altruism, but the fact that so many fail to be generous in a time of crisis suggests that we should always emphasise this fact as it is in our compassion and generosity that we experience the essence of relationships that make us truly human.

And this is not a thought born solely out of a religious perspective. To be sure, many of those who espouse religious values can be those who exercise the greatest harm to the neighbour in his or her time of need. History is replete with the barbaric excesses of religion as they exercise tyrannical and oppressive holds over the lives of their adherents and those who do not share their religious ideas. Harm has and can be done to people all in the name of obeying God's will. But notwithstanding this, seeking the welfare of the other person is still a construct that is firmly grounded in religious thinking. This is certainly the case with Christianity. It is what helps to make us human.

And this is not mere heroism. Those who possess a sense of compassion do not regard themselves as heroic whenever they exercise acts of kindness or extraordinary bravery in helping their fellow men. Such acts may seem heroic to the ordinary person because there is such a paucity of such behaviour in our daily interactions with each other. The tendency is often to pursue one's ambitions irrespective of the harm that is done to the neighbour. It is to go out into the public and not wear a mask when there is the distinct possibility that you could contract the virus or pass it on to another person. In this instance, what may be construed as defiance or a radical assertion of one's right is downright stupidity which can prove fatal.

Every day we come across acts of human kindness that give hope there is a more enduring nobility which persists in human nature. We see it in the bravery of the first responders to this virus — the nurses, doctors, and the workers in the allied health services. It is easy for us to say that this is what they signed up for when they entered this line of work, but this is to diminish or minimise the demand that COVID-19 has made and continues to make on these professionals. You cannot help but admire and be awed at the bravery of these first responders in places like New York, Italy, and Spain, as they battled the virus. With selfless disregard they waded into unknown and uncharted territory to fight an enemy they could not see. Even when many of their colleagues became sick themselves, and even died from the virus, they still got up every morning to get back into the trenches. I have no doubt that Jamaica's first responders would do similarly if the occasion called for it. It is who they are. Their work and that of others is clear demonstration that we are meeting the test of human compassion in this crisis.

But this is not evident in those who would want to politicise the crisis or shamelessly exploit it for their own economic gain. There has never been a human tragedy that does not produce its fair share of those who would exploit it for their own gain, irrespective of the harm their action may be causing others. The politicisation of human compassion is one of the most dastardly acts that could be committed by those who were given public trust to lead in a time of crisis.

Sadly, this is emerging as one of the more prominent features of the American response to the virus to date. America is cited here because it is a great example of the dismal approach to fighting the virus for a country that should have been at the helm of leading the world's battle against it. The virus could not have come at a worse time for America. It came upon a country that is deeply divided politically and economically, the former made more intense by the earlier impeachment of the president. Worse, it came in a presidential election year. Given his obsession with numbers, the president from the very beginning defaulted to an instinct which told him that growing numbers of coronavirus cases could be negative for his election prospects. Thus, he played it down and did not make a robust response to dealing effectively with the emerging pandemic.

As time transpired, he butted heads with democratic governors, whose states were in dire need of ventilators, masks, and other medical paraphernalia to effectively combat the virus. Often, at national briefings on the country's response to the virus, he petulantly argued with reporters who dared to ask questions he considered “snarky” or “nasty” when they were merely doing their jobs.

Now there seems to be an indecent haste to open the country in contradiction of all scientific metrics, which indicate a more careful and gradual approach. Only time will tell whether his timing will work. But what seems clear is that the president has his sights firmly fixed on the elections in November. The virus clearly has become a humbug to his desires. The economy must be lifted out of the doldrums as a weak economy is his Achilles heel.

Absent in all this is a riveting sense of compassion that could inspire hope that the country and the world can come out of the hole in which the virus has placed us. Rather, what we have seen is a will-to-power on the part of the president, which will lead to his political demise and bring incalculable harm to the country and by extension the world.

Jamaican politicians must be warned not to play political games with this crisis as they set their sights on that event which will be upon us by early 2021. To be compassionate is not to be soft, but to feel deeply in your guts for what others are going through. What gut do our politicians have?

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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