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Empathy. A term synonymous with understanding. A practice that involves care. Simply put, empathy is the ability to recognize the feelings, perspectives, and experiences of another, and allow this understanding to guide our thoughts and actions. How often, throughout the past year, have you found yourself walking a mile or two in another’s shoes? You may be surprised to find that the answer is more than you thought.

Image is courtesy of The New York Times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of normal life. Communities, nations, and humanity as a whole has ventured into an unfamiliar path where the global health threat of the virus appears at every bend. Still, we have not all faced it in the same way. Vulnerable groups—including the homeless and low-income, racial and ethinic minorities, the elderly, and individuals with underlying medical conditions—are at a higher risk of being affected on a much greater scale. This is where empathy is of utmost importance.

The pandemic cannot be conquered individually; it demands the efforts of all. By taking action and making sacrifices to prioritize the safety and well-being of not only ourselves, but others as well, we will emerge from the pandemic sooner rather than later and stronger than ever. To remind ourselves of the important role empathy holds in the midst of current times, let us take a look at a few significant aspects of society in which having empathy and acting with compassion has allowed us to thrive.

School Environments

School is a fundamental part of daily life for students, teachers, and other education staff. The sudden shift to virtual learning has necessitated the difficult adjustment to a remote learning environment. Yet for many teachers, the ordeal has brought rise to a greater level of empathy. As an article by Editorial Projects in Education describes, educators have recognized many challenges their students face, from an absence of resources to a lack of motivation. In a similar manner, students have come to gain a greater appreciation for their teachers as they too navigate the unfamiliar world of online teaching. Overall, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of teacher-student connectivity.

Work Environments

For many, the pandemic has brought major challenges in the form of financial insecurity, job uncertainty, escalated stress levels, and social isolation. Within the workforce, both employers and employees alike have faced the disruption of normal business operations. This has also granted the opportunity, however, for leaders across the globe to realize the value of empathy in the workplace and how it cultivates trust, inclusivity, and the potential for meaningful connections. In the middle of a health crisis, physical safety, mental health, and the prevention of burnout takes priority. But more importantly, these aspects of well-being should be prioritized all the time. An article by HRD Connect details the findings of research conducted by Hack Future Lab, in which “83% of executives see empathy playing a far greater role in sustaining a thriving workforce in a post-COVID future of work.” In many work environments, the pandemic has established new strategies in maintaining healthy workplace dynamics.

The Community

A community who sees one another. Who hears, listens, and cares for each member. This is empathy, and throughout the past year, we have seen nothing short of great displays in action. Frontline and essential workers have put themselves at risk each day to help others. Companies and organizations have taken to producing PPE and other high-demand essentials. The general public has learned to prioritize flattening the curve over their own individual desires. In the midst of a pandemic, we have come to recognize that community is truly indispensable.

How to Continue

May these and other everyday acts of empathy be both a reminder and a message of encouragement to continue our efforts in supporting others. As Canada approaches a third wave and Ontario imposes a third lockdown, let us not abandon empathy, but commit to our battle of lowering case numbers and stopping the spread of the virus. Here is a list of simple gestures and ways to show empathy and compassion:

  • Wear a mask in public areas and practice physical distancing.

  • Volunteer your time with a local non-profit or charitable organization. Getting involved in a tangible way allows you to give back to your community. There are also many virtual volunteering opportunities on this website available!

  • Support a small/local business.

  • If you have the financial means to do so, consider making a donation to a charity that is assisting vulnerable groups during this time. You can also reach out and ask what items are currently in need. Food, clothing, toiletries, baby items, PPE, and essentials such as hand sanitizer may be in high-demand.

  • Send a positive message to a friend.

  • Take care of your health and well-being. According to Healthline, compassion fatigue can result in physical and mental exhaustion. If you are experiencing negative emotions and stress, self care and frequent breaks are vital. As neuropsychology professor, Eric Zillmer, puts it, “Just like in an airplane where the oxygen masks deploy, we have to manage our physical and emotional well-being first…otherwise being compassionate is not within our reach.”

  • Get vaccinated if you are able to and have the opportunity to do so.

From how far we have come and how long we have endured, it is evident that kindness does indeed go a long way. While there is much room for improvement and a long path ahead, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how empathy is at the root of a caring and compassionate society.

Article Author: Victoria Huang

Article Editors: Edie Whittington, Sherilyn Wen