The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has become synonymous with the phrase “building a culture of health”. Many of us working in public health are diligently pursuing the promises embedded within this phrase, such as equity, justice and well-being for all people. And yet, we cannot build a culture of health unless we first have a culture of empathy.
The nature of equity, as succinctly described by RWJF, includes removing obstacles that prevent some of us from the possibility of good health. This means that some people need more than others to make the possibility of good health a reality. And yet, removing obstacles such as poverty and discrimination, requires a collective empathy as a society. We have to care that some of our neighbors have less than others. And, more importantly, we have to act accordingly. This is the hallmark of an empathetic society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequities that have long plagued American society: racial and economic disparities built into our nation’s founding. But our national lack of empathy has exacerbated the toll of COVID-19 far more than it had to. To be sure, there have been many heroic efforts during this pandemic from so many. But too many people have chosen to place their own individual interests above the interests of society as a whole.
One remarkable example of this is face coverings. Mask wearing has become the one of the most contentious issues in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is significant, and growing, evidence that face covering reduces the risk of community spread of Covid-19. While face covering is becoming mandated in a growing number of states, many individuals, including some elected officials, continue to revolt against their use. A primary argument against masks is that they infringe upon individual rights and liberty. But, do we have the right to make other people sick?
For whatever reason, many people in the US do not seem to either understand or care that the decision to wear a mask is not about protecting us as individuals. It is about protecting all of society, especially those who are most vulnerable to serious COVID-19 related complications. We all have people in our own families with such vulnerability. So why is it so hard to be empathetic to the health and well-being of others? Why is it so hard to wear a mask?
Wearing a mask is the quintessential “love thy neighbor” action. And ironically, face masks have been the most heavily resisted in states, many in the south, with large majority Christian populations. A group of pastors in Kentucky recently penned an Op-Ed stating that Jesus would wear a mask because doing so is an act of love. Where has love gone in our national discourse around protecting the health of the most vulnerable among us?
Those who oppose mandatory or even recommended COVID-19 prevention measures, like mask wearing, say they do so out of disdain for government overreach. The choice to wear a mask has become increasingly politicized. And it doesn’t help that during crisis situations humans tend to go into psychological overdrive due to a fight or flight response. That makes trying to feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes that much harder.
For those of us in public health, part of our job is trying to see our common humanity. No humans are less than or greater than when it comes to the public health. You might say that empathy is embedded within the profession. Which is why the recent animosity toward public health professionals is especially concerning.
Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” The current pandemic presents a unique opportunity for us as humans. We can come together and show the courage to be empathetic. Even when our leaders do not.
One way to show courage is to wear a mask. This simple act demonstrates that the individual costs of discomfort and inconvenience are far lesser than the social costs of death and suffering. It shows that we are committed to a culture of empathy as a core social value, without which there can be no culture of health.
Nickolas Zaller is an IRL fellow from Cohort 2018-2021 of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL). To learn more about Nick and Team Arkansas, read about their research project: Regional Expansion of Treatment for Addiction in Corrections via Telehealth: Project REACH
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.