Reflections on the Recent Coronavirus Outbreak: Especially for those who are empathetic

Over the last few months, I have been quiet on 44 because I feel that I’ve been going through a period of self-reflection and change. Last year, after living in Braamfontein for four years, I moved back to my hometown, Benoni. I have been a little confused at times because what I thought would be an easy transition, has been difficult at times, and there have been periods where my self-esteem has dropped and I’ve been confused about my identity and self. These are both normal feelings one can get when going through a change though, and so I haven’t been too worried about it.

While I may write a blog on identity and self in the future, today’s blog has been inspired by the recent coronavirus outbreak, and the realisations I have made over this last week. If you, like me, are a deeply empathetic person, you may find this blog a reassurance.

In January and February 2020, I had heard things about the Coronavirus, but admittedly, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Truthfully, I think my brain thought it was China (then Europe’s) problem, and that it didn’t affect me. Of course, we’ve seen now how quickly the virus has spread across the world, and it’s become clear that one country’s misfortunes can become everyone’s.

On Sunday night (15 March 2020) in South Africa, it was announced that South Africa had 61 cases of coronavirus. That made me a little bit antsy, but by the next day I was a wreck. The thing about being 2-3 weeks behind everyone else is that you can see your future clearly lined up in front of you. The rising death rate in Italy … That’s South Africa in two weeks.

How I saw it was that there were two choices with many consequences:

Contain the virus by announcing compulsory quarantines and travel bans– While this will slow down the spread of the virus, it will also result in economic turmoil. If people are no longer going out, restaurants, hair salons, taxi-drivers etc.…. are going to lose their client base, which means that a lot of people will be laid off and won’t be able to afford food or make rent. The announcement on the travel ban will very clearly affect the tourism industry as well as airports and airlines, and millions of people are going to lose their jobs.

On top of that, South Africa is already in a state of economic crisis and holds one of the highest inequality rates in the world. If people cannot work, they cannot eat. In that respect, quarantines are then impossible. (Bearing in mind that self-isolation is already challenging in an informal settlement.)

Continue going to work and supporting businesses – While the effects of the previous scenarios will be dampened, it also means that the spread of the virus is going to increase, and many people are going to catch it all at once. The problem with this is that it puts pressure on the healthcare system, and there may not be enough resources (doctors, hospital beds, etc.) to attend to everyone. As seen in Italy, this has increased the death rate.

In South Africa, a large percentage of people are living in poverty and many have HIV. They will most likely take the hardest hit from coronavirus.

As you can probably understand, this line of thinking turned me into a spiraling mess, and I became very panicked about our country. Both choices would surely bring about mass suffering, and on top of that, people (particularly the most economically vulnerable) would be further disadvantaged by the sudden attack on shopping malls as everyone rushed to stock up.

On Monday night, after finding her crying wreck of a daughter, my mom sat down with me and spoke through all these worries. It helped a lot speaking about it with her, as we were able to identify why I was feeling the way I was, and what I could do to change that.

I am a very empathetic person and my day-to-day life consists of stepping into the shoes of others in order to understand their perspectives and feelings. While I believe that empathy is an important human trait, I’ve realized this week that it can also leave you feeling really heavy.

This week I have experienced a mountain of stress because of the effects this coronavirus has had and is going to have on individuals. The taxi driver who can’t get any clients; the restaurant owner who had to close down; the worker who was recently laid off; the shoppers who arrive to empty shelves… I’ve realized however, that while it is important to be aware of the experiences of others, it is not helping anybody when you’re sitting around stressing for them. They still have to deal with their challenge, and panicking for them isn’t going to change that.

As my mom said: “You should take time to step in other’s shoes, but at the end of the day, you need to give those shoes back.”

Stressing about what each person is going through right now is only going to compromise your own health, and that’s probably not the wisest move to make when we’re trying to reduce the spread of this virus.

I’ve also realized that by stressing over people, I’m telling myself and everybody else that that person is not capable of getting through their challenge. Basically, I’m treating them like helpless victims. People solve problems every single day though, and disasters such as the coronavirus give people the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zones and think and act in a different way. Without challenges, is it possible for us to reach our greatest potential?

Instead of stressing for people, I feel that it’s more impactful to encourage them. To let them know that, yes, life is different now, but I believe in you and I believe that you have the tools to get through this.

During this period, I’ve seen people moving in different directions, creating new products, trying to develop anti-virals and vaccines, looking out for each other, having realisations, thinking about new systems, spending more time with their family in quarantine… I’ve seen doctors and nurses stepping up, people having time for self-reflection, people making music, people deciding what their values are and what’s important.

I’ve seen the environment improving. I’ve seen pictures of Venice’s clearer canals. Of wildlife tracking through the Italian streets.

What may initially look like a disaster may actually be the start of a new type of world. Most likely, a necessary one.

So, as we go through the next few months, I encourage you to remind yourself that not all is lost, and this is merely an opportunity for you to improve yourself. I believe that there is a reason you are being faced with your current challenge, and I know that you are strong enough to get through it.

Love to all.