Compassion in the time of coronavirus

But even in the midst of social distancing, which is so unnatural to our species, we humans have other useful, innate capacities that the virus will allow us to retain, even as we strive to reduce face-to-face contact. And we can use these natural proclivities as weapons, too. These innate capacities include our impulse to cooperate and our ability to deliberately teach each other useful things (a defining trait of our species that is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom).

The complicated agenda we face is that, in this time of a pandemic, just as we are supposed to distance ourselves, we must also band together. Pandemics are an especially demanding test of our ability to cooperate because we are trying to protect not just people we know but also people we do not know (or even, possibly, care about). When we avoid meetings, decline to shake hands or pull our kids from school, we are showing compassion to innumerable faceless other people, because we are interrupting possible chains of contagion that might pass through us, whether we ourselves get sick or not.

We will also be called upon to help those among us who are most vulnerable and least appreciated — the elderly, the homeless, the chronically ill, the institutionalized. And health-care workers will be expected to take personal risks of getting sick or even dying so they can care for others. But again, when a disease is spreading, helping others also helps ourselves, by helping to eradicate reservoirs of infection and stopping transmission.