The 'pandemic of kindness': Will we be more considerate after coronavirus?

Kerri Emerson was working as a physiotherapy assistant in a hospital in Birmingham when the pandemic struck. As for many of us, the twin safety nets of work and relationships were quickly whipped away — “I’m considered high risk, so I wasn’t allowed to be in the hospital,” Kerri explains. Sitting at home with a growing sense of anxiety, she started to think of ways she could help her NHS colleagues without putting herself at risk. She decided to set up a support group for staff. “The idea was to post messages of support, video workouts, healthy recipes and discussion topics. I also wanted to raise money through the gofundme page to provide morale boosting extras — like coffees — for the people working in local hospitals…So far we’ve had an amazing response with offers of food, flowers, socks…” The group now has more than 5,000 members, all working in some way to support the wellbeing of local NHS staff.

Kerri’s is one of countless similar tales. In the past month, the majority of us have been galvanised into the kinds of good deeds and shows of compassion that in normal times we’d never think to engage in. From signing-off emails to colleagues with a heartfelt “hope you are well and safe” to running for heroes and delivering food to vulnerable people — Australian psychologist Lea Waters has called this COVID kindness “an emotional Mexican wave.” Even something as simple as clapping for carers: to clap for the NHS is to act out our compassion for the people risking their lives for our benefit. The question is, where could this groundswell of goodwill take us after the immediate crisis has passed?

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As Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale University explained to The New York Times last month: “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people…” At the moment, this pandemic seems to be highlighting a humanity and care for others that, with the various arguments over Brexit and the divisions wrought by three general elections in five years, we’d all but forgotten.

Dr Marit Hammond, a lecturer at Keele University who specialises in democratic theory agrees. “In a democracy, the scale of this cultural shift is significant,” she explains. “The crisis is pushing us to examine what we consider meaningful, and what we value in society. If the broad base of society values something — say healthcare — differently than it did before then that is going to be felt in how they express themselves politically and what they expect of their politicians.”

Arguably we can already see this shift at work. Feeling the public pressure to recognise the amazing work of our nation’s care sector workers, Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced a badge-based reward system for social workers. Edel Harris, CEO of the learning disability charity Mencap, seemed to sum up the mood of the majority, though, when he said “[beyond] well-meaning gestures”, the sector “would much prefer to see funds available so that the hard working frontline social care workforce can be given a pay rise on a par with the NHS to really value the incredible work they do”.

Similarly, when PM Boris Johnson posted a video message on Easter Sunday (offering his sincere thanks to the nurses who cared for him during the worst of his battle with Covid-19), many were quick to point out that he was one of 313 Tory MPs who, in 2017 voted to keep a cap on pay rises for nurses so that, in real terms, over the past three years, their wages have actually gone down.

From a practical perspective, as the economist Dr Simon Mair, writing in The Conversation, argues: “the pandemic is highlighting that many jobs are not essential, yet we lack sufficient key workers to respond when things go bad.” For him, the problem lay first with our value system (“jobs in many critical services aren’t those that tend to be highest valued in society”) and second with our historic unwillingness to believe that our value system could (or should) change. “A ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality has pervaded economics, certainly within my lifetime,” he says.

For many, though, this crisis has prompted a moment of reflection. “There are things happening which two months ago wouldn’t have been seen as possible because that’s just not how the economy or the world works,” says Dr Mair. Beyond healthcare, he points to homelessness: “before you had this attitude of ‘you can’t do anything about homelessness because some people are just homeless.’ Now, in cities across the UK people are being taken off the streets and put into secure accommodation. The question is, how do we stop people ending up back on the streets after the crisis period has passed?”

Lockdown has put many of us in a headspace that is ideologically compatible with more human-centered politics. This week news broke that more than 100 opposition politicians had signed an open letter calling for the government to extend a universal basic income (UBI) to all citizens at the end of the furlough period, when many may find themselves facing redundancy. “This is the kind of politics that has been discussed for a long time, but which never got wide-scale backing before,” says Dr Hammond. “It might seem completely utopian to some people — but furlough is an experiment in UBI and it’s possible that something concrete will come from it.”

Supporters of the idea argue that in the turbulent months to come it’ll help tackle inequality and financial instability, though Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and former secretary of state for business, writing in this publication in March called UBI nothing more than a “sticking plaster to get us through coronavirus”: “Government concerns over debt sustainability are rightly being suspended, as in wartime, to counter a bigger threat. But if the need for basic income support expands and drags on the effects on the Exchequer will be very severe […] the idea that governments can print money indefinitely to support a new kind of welfare system beggars belief.”

Dr Olivier Accominotti is associate professor of economic history at the London School of Economics. As he explains, “going forward, there will be some big political changes and I suspect these will involve greater governmental intervention in the economy and in the financial markets.” But, he says, it would be naive to assume that greater spending will necessarily equal a more compassionate politics in the long term. “There might be a backlash against the increased public spending which would ultimately lead back to austerity.”

He points out that in our globalized economic system, if a government massively increased taxation in order to increase spending on welfare or reduce their public debt, this could lead to issues of tax avoidance and evasion. “Governments might then push for reforms in the global system, for example to tackle the issue of tax avoidance by multinational corporations.” This redrawing of the rules is hard to predict and would require cooperation from more than one country. Even for a layperson, this seems somehow unlikely then again, as all the experts tell me, right now, from this unprecedented starting point, anything is possible.

Dr Mair agrees that it’s not a given that the depth of goodwill we currently feel towards one another, and towards those who are more vulnerable will translate into the political sphere. As he explains: “we, as citizens, may have become more engaged — providing services for the less fortunate, becoming involved in mutual aid groups — but whether this leads to real political change depends on where that all stops. There has to be a politicising moment for those people — so that rather than just acts of kindness, we are able to connect to a wider system and a wider movement.”

There are, of course, multiple scenarios where the political mood shifts us further to the right. Labour lost by a landslide in the 2015 election, despite years of grinding austerity which disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society. Jeremy Corbyn lost twice since then. At the same time, right wing populist movements gained traction in many countries around the world, often on anti-immigration platforms (hello Brexit).

“There’s an opportunity here,” says Dr Accominotti, “to focus on resolving inequalities – which have been a huge issue in the last decade, especially in the US and UK. So, this could be the time to rethink the way the globalized economy and financial system works.” It was, after all, in the economic disaster period after WW2 that the NHS, the foundation of our welfare state, was first founded. But, continues Accominotti, “the Covid-19 crisis could also strengthen the protectionist, anti-globalization movement, which was already on the rise in the last decade.” Just in the past few days Trump imposed an immigration ban designed to preserve jobs for American workers. This may be a reaction to the economic shutdown but to his detractors, like Texas congressman Joaquin Castro, chair of the congressional Hispanic caucus, it seems more like an “…authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda.”

It’s difficult to know how any of this will play out but what if we are at a moment when left is not left and right is not right? What if, in this moment of cessation, it is in our power to change the very fabric of our politics, our economics? “We’ve been seeing the development of new forms of democracy — what we call democratic innovation — for a while now,” says Dr Hammond. “There’s the citizens’ assembly on climate change, for instance. That is very top-down led. I think for us to move forward from this moment of crisis, we need political spaces where people feel heard, where they get to share their stories in a bottom-up way, where there’s a more open-ended agenda. This means people can speak honestly about what they need and ideas can be shared about how we can make that work.” Devolution was already on the political agenda pre-crisis, though arguably not in any significant way. Perhaps this is truly a time when a more decentralised approach to government could take root.

What all agree on is that the economic and ideological space which has opened up is unprecedented. “Business as usual” will not be an option after the immediate crisis is over, but whether our spirit of kindness and feeling of in-it-together humanity will persist is hard to predict. In lockdown the government is pursuing the kinds of human-centered policies necessary to stop millions of us losing our homes and livelihoods. This, we all agree, is a good thing. From this point of agreement, a thousand potential futures spool out.

Whatever the long-term effects of this “pandemic of kindness” may be, what’s undoubtable is that kindness and compassion have a well-documented feel-good effect in the immediate. Dr Kelli Harding is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irvine Medical Center in New York and the author of The Rabbit Effect, a book exploring the science of kindness. As she explains: “Kindness is shown to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol, reduce our perception of pain and even help us live longer.” Repetitive acts of kindness also boost our mental health. “There was a study that found that even seven days of repeated small acts of kindness boosted levels of happiness. It’s amazing because it’s something all of us can do.”

In a time of such uncertainty, volunteering, donating, “even just calling someone to say thank you for something they’ve done for you,” says Harding, are all excellent ways to exert a small degree of control. And who knows what that small act might lead to. “One person’s actions have a ripple effect,” says Harding. “If we are all working to be more compassionate towards one another, then there is a possibility that we’ll change the world during this pandemic.”

Next time you are standing on your doorsteps clapping into the night, imagine those ripples of sound spreading outwards from your hands, growing in diameter, gaining in magnitude to the point where they have the power to move something, to make something radically better. For the first time in a very long time, that opportunity seems very real.