Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

What is Compassion in the Time of COVID-19?

Written by our Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.

Compassion is attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others, with the wisdom and steps taken to relieve it. Compassion calls forth action, but with the wisdom to know when, how and what is required.

Harriet Harris and Marti Balaam


I – Why We Feel Stuck

A photograph of one person holding out their hand to another

Ordinary times have a certain quality to them. They rumble along, quietly. Much is unremarkable, invisible, and unquestioned. Habits, patterns, and practices sediment into their own rhythms, regular as a heartbeat. Personal and societal circumstances vary, of course, in what counts as ordinary. For some it is ordinary to step outdoors and fear sickness; for others, it is not. But we are all familiar with the nature of ordinariness itself, however this manifests in our lives.

Woven into ordinariness is ethical life. ‘Ethics is part of the human condition,’ the anthropologist Michael Lambek writes: ‘human beings cannot avoid being subject to ethics, speaking and acting with ethical consequences, evaluating our actions and those of others, acknowledging and refusing acknowledgment, caring and taking care, but also being aware of our failure to do so consistently.’i In other words, even in the most ordinary of times, questioning what is right or good is inherent to being human – as is awareness that we will not always get it right. An ordinary life is one of ethical questioning, uncertainty, and imperfection.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not an ordinary time. It is extraordinary, and therefore many of the qualities of ordinary time and life are inversed. Much is suddenly remarkable, visible, questionable. Rhythms are disrupted. But the ethical quality of ordinary life – the questioning, uncertainty, and imperfection – is not inversed: it is amplified. The stakes are higher. The question of what is right or good to do – of what compassion, for example, looks like at a time like this – suddenly has fresh urgency and potency.

Harriet Harris and Marti Balaam define compassion as ‘attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others, with the wisdom and steps taken to relieve it. Compassion calls forth action, but with the wisdom to know when, how and what is required.’ These questions of action – what to do, and when, and how – are resonating right now at every level of our society: government, institutions, communities, families, individuals.

The difficulty of ethical life in the time of COVID-19 is that answers to those questions are partial, incomplete, and shapeshifting. They emerge slowly, only after haggling, debate, and dispute. The definition of a key worker; the date to start lockdown; the date to lift lockdown; whether to quarantine, track, and trace; whether to wear a mask if you are a bus driver; whether you can wash and reuse PPE; whether to show up for work if your employer will not protect you; whether you can walk twice a day, if you have a mental illness and will decline without exercise; whether you can leave your household, if you have fought with your partner; whether to go to A&E, if you have chest pains, but live with someone extremely clinically vulnerable.

As definitions, categories, answers, and indeed laws emerge, we might think that the uncertainty would ease as ordinariness of a new kind reasserts itself. We even have a phrase for it: ‘the new normal’. But remember, we are in extraordinary times, and the characteristic of ethical life that is currently amplified is that this moment, as we live it, is both urgent and uncertain. As Lambek reminds us, ethics are in every move we make, and we feel the weight of them. This is the moment we are in, and we must live it, without knowing how it turns out.

It is no wonder that amidst this uncertainty, with so much at stake, so many of us feel stymied and stuck. It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression have dramatically escalated. While the labels of mental health can be tremendously useful, and its treatment lifesaving, it is important to hold some space in which the difficulty of this ethical moment is not medicalised. This is not just a public health emergency, it is an ethical emergency, with questions of how we care for ourselves, each other, and our world reverberating through every step.

Where do we go from here? How do we get unstuck? ‘The wisdom to know when, how, and what is required’ is not easily come by. As Lauren Berlant argues, compassion is not an absolute quality; it is culturally and historically contingent. To feel the shifting sands beneath our feet is to feel this. Sometimes, it is all we can do just to acknowledge that wise action is contingent. To do so is to create space that is prior to clarity, but does not guarantee it. If we are to become unstuck, we must aim to be more specific about what compassion looks like in the time of COVID.


II – Compassion in the Time of COVID-19

We can find one indication of this in what happened when Emily Maitlis introduced Newsnight a month ago.

‘They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not,’ she said.

‘This is a myth which needs debunking. Those on the front line right now – bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers – are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown a lot tougher. Those who work in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health.’

Maitlis spoke about the unequal effects of COVID-19 across our society at the beginning of April, even before evidence emerged that BAME groups are more likely to develop and die from the disease, and the government faced calls for an independent inquiry. Her words seemed bold, and that in itself is striking. Striking, too, was widespread praise for her ninety second monologue. ‘Extraordinary,’ said one commentator. ‘As great and as brief a comment on the truth of the pandemic as we’ve yet seen,’ said another.

The response to Maitlis’ speech reveals our collective hunger for discernment – and it reveals collective assent as to what compassion looks like during this time. Compassion, now, means telling the truth about the disproportionate effects of this pandemic across our society. It means acknowledging difference, and differential vulnerability. We don’t just want to hear that we are ‘all in this together’; we are not all on a level.

And yet: here is another indication of what compassion must look like in the time of COVID. Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life, recently critiqued the military language used to describe the pandemic, and the heroic rhetoric for healthcare staff. After Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons defence select committee, suggested that the Red Arrows should perform flypasts during Thursday evenings’ ‘clap for carers’, Clarke wrote, ‘the increasingly bombastic proposals for honouring our “sacrifice” are beginning to feel more burdensome than uplifting…Medals, I imagine, are a matter of glory. But right now, my needs are frankly more prosaic. What I crave is sufficient masks and gowns.’

The story of battles, frontlines, heroes, and enemies, is an ancient one, containing a profound form of division – because to make healthcare workers ‘heroes’ makes them not like us. This is dehumanising, as Clarke shows. ‘Heroes aren’t scared. Heroes don’t cry. Heroes are immune to PTSD. Heroes don’t need work-life balance and lunch breaks. Heroes don’t lie awake at night worrying about infecting their partners and children.’ Being scared, and crying, and needing lunch breaks, are human – and prosaic – forms of suffering. The provision of masks and gowns would be a compassionate step to relieve them.

In one sense, the ethos revealed in Maitlis and Clarke’s respective stories is the same. Maitlis shows that to deny the reality of COVID-19’s disproportionate effect across our society is to dehumanise a large and integral part of it. Clarke shows that to claim the otherness of healthcare workers is to deny their human vulnerability, too.

But in another sense, the stories that Maitlis and Clarke have told us are different. For Maitlis, compassion means acknowledging that people are different from one another. And for Clarke, it means acknowledging that we are the same.

This tension is at the heart of the questions that we must reckon with, as we determine what compassion looks like in the time of COVID-19, because it is a tension at the heart of modern liberalism. In the era of globalisation, this pandemic has not suspended questions of identity, difference, and belonging; in the era of austerity government, it has not suspended questions of responsibility and care.

Rather, just as our ordinary ethical life heightens, so too do our socio-politics. Compassion, argues Lauren Berlant, is ‘a social and aesthetic technology of belonging and not an organic emotion’. This is not ‘to demean its authenticity and its centrality to social life’.ii But recall the first part of Harris’ and Balaam’s definition of compassion, that it is ‘attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others’. We must be alert to the specific ways in which ‘ourselves’ and ‘others’ are construed during this time, because in ethical practice across history and culture, it is not only the what, when and how that determines what compassion will look like. It is also the who: who is deemed worthy of care, and who is responsible for it.

These questions are key to the Maitlis and Clarke examples. Here is how Clarke tackles the second: ‘I should stress,’ she writes, ‘that the weekly outpouring of gratitude from the public reliably reduces me to tears…When doing your day job could cost you your life, knowing the public are behind you means everything. But government war talk is an altogether different matter.’

In times like these, thinking critically about what compassion could look like means being discerning about who enacts it. The word ‘discernment’, from the Latin discernere, means to separate, divide, and distinguish. It means recognising where things are different from each other. A government is a different kind of responsible actor than a human being. In being compassionate, governments and citizens may therefore tell different narratives, and do different things. While the public’s ‘clap for carers’ lands as compassion, Clarke wants the government to tell the prosaic stories, not the wartime ones, because she argues that the state’s ‘heroisation’ of healthcare staff conceals a lack of compassion in deed.

What we have witnessed of responsibility and worthiness thus far during the time of COVID-19 demands that we ask more hard questions. Can the state be compassionate? Is compassion simply down to us? Is that a problem? These are philosophical questions, but they are also empirical. Berlant writes that, in the US, ‘the word compassion carries the weight of ongoing debates about the ethics of privilege – in particular about the state as an economic, military, and moral actor that represents and establishes collective norms of obligation.’ By Berlant’s reckoning, the state can indeed be compassionate. But for the empirical truth of that, we must watch.


III – How We Get Unstuck: Bear Witness

We respond so strongly to narratives like Maitlis’ and Clarke’s, because – although it is easy to forget this in the frenzy of ‘but what should I do?’ – stories matter. It is not just that words have corresponding deeds, but that they are also deeds: they act, upon the storyteller, and upon the world.

This shows another form that compassion will take in the time of COVID. Where governments may provide masks and gowns, and act to protect BAME groups, our journalists and healthcare workers may act best through their direct and clear truth-telling about the vulnerable. In the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy, we support clinical staff whose repertoire of compassionate acts in ordinary times has been profoundly compromised by the slashing of services under lockdown, and the escalating suffering that has ensued. They may feel as though there is nothing that they can do. And yet there is, and it is to bear witness: to tell the story of what they see.

And we, in turn, must bear witness to the tales that others tell. We must do so discerningly: as Maitlis does, to the tale of coronavirus the great leveller; and as Clarke does, to the tale of healthcare staff, the heroes. We must critique some stories, and pass others on. Some, we must simply hold, gently.

Both Maitlis and Clarke are designated key workers. Most of us are not journalists, and many of us are not key workers. But the practice of bearing witness is not inherently a job, although it may be. It is an ethical calling, a part of being a human among other humans in this world. It is the key work of compassion that we must do for ourselves, and for each other.


Someone typing on a typewriter, with a cup of tea beside them and some flowers.
i Michael Lambek, ‘Introduction’, in M. Lambek, ed., Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action (New York, 2010), p.1.
ii Lauren Berlant, ‘Introduction’, in L. Berlant, ed., Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (London, 2004), p. 5.