Compassion in the Time of Pandemic

Pandemic 1


By John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS

For decades, I taught a popular university course called “Literature of the Plague.” The syllabus included books like Albert Camus’ The Plague, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. It also included Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, but based on events during the 1665 Great Plague when bubonic plague swept through London. More popularly, Defoe also wrote Robinson Crusoe. I even wrote a novel based on how the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic decimated the population of Alaska Native peoples, killing fully half the population and as many as seventy-five percent in some communities. Worldwide, an estimated 50-100 million people died from that flu strain. While the global percentage Pandemic 2of people who actually died from the Spanish Flu was low, the percentage of deaths among Alaska Natives was especially high because they had no previous exposure or immunity. The Great Death is based on stories my full-blood Indian grandmother and her older sister used to tell me about how the flu killed almost everyone in their tiny village. Natives still call that tragic period “The Great Death.” Nowadays, it’s engii—taboo—to visit the long-abandoned village for fear of disturbing the spirits.

(Photo of the author’s grandmothers: Mary Joe Smelcer [in blue blouse] and her sister, Morrie Secondchief, taken by the author at Mendeltna, Alaska, 1994)

I’ve learned a great deal from my research over the years. What I learned most is how fear and ignorance quickly turns into hate and violence and inhumanity. As with many things tribalism, racism, and religious difference is often at the core of such atrocities. What most people don’t realize is that there were many plagues throughout European history. Some, like the Black Death stick out in the annals of history for the sheer ferocity and horror of the plague. Shakespeare saw plagues in London. Sometime around the year 1600, he and his cast evacuated London when the mayor closed the playhouses and other public places where people gathered in large numbers. As with today, the local government was concerned with slowing the transmission of the disease from person to person and from carrying the disease home where clusters of infected would thereafter emerge. Sound familiar? Until it was safe to return to the city, Willy and his crew traveled around England visiting small towns like Cambridge and performing their plays to support themselves.

The one commonality I’ve learned from my research is the way the dominant group in a region has always looked for a scapegoat—someone or some group to blame for the pandemic. That someone was always the Other. In Europe, Jews were accused of spreading the disease by poisoning local water wells with the contagion. In the ensuing mass hysteria that spread like a virus, Jews were roundePandemic 3d up and killed in horrific pogroms (see illustration). No one was spared regardless of the fact that the Jewish enclaves suffered equally from the plague’s ravages. Elsewhere in Europe, the Moors (Arab Muslims who settled in Spain and Portugal between the 11th and 17th centuries) were similarly blamed and massacred. Elsewhere still, women were accused of being witches who conjured the plague in the Devil’s name

(illustration at right: Woodcut, burning of Jews in Europe).
(illustration at right, below: A witch being burned at the stake)

Pandemic 4One of the great failings of humanity is our irrepressible inclination to rationalize even the most atrocious actions. It is too easy to say that people in the past operated in the dark, guided only by fear and ignorance and superstition. But we are better than they were. Today, we are informed by science and by epidemiologists who help us understand the nature of diseases and epidemics (my sister-in-law is a Harvard-educated epidemiologist and professor). And yet, today, in cities around the world, large and small, people of Asian descent are being blamed for the spread of the disease, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever been to China, as if they are somehow innate carriers of the virus . . . as if it’s in their genes. It is not. In fact, Europe is now the epicenter of the Coronavirus, not Asia. And yet, people of Asian descent are being harassed and bullied and threatened. It is the Jews, the Moors, and witches all over again. Humanity has put man on the moon and launched spacecraft that have left our solar system. And yet, in our frantic search for someone to blame, many of us return to the ignorance of centuries past.

Xenophobia always seems to rear its ugly head in time of epidemics. “Someone must be responsible!” screams the angry mob. The truth is no one is responsible. No one deserves to be infected. No one asks to get sick. Certainly no one asks to be hospitalized or to die from it.

It is worth noting that the epicenter of the 1918 Spanish Flu was Europe, most likely France or Britain, despite its name. At the end of the WWI, soldiers returning home to America, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, or elsewhere, transmitted the virus globally as they traveled home on ships and trains. Yet, people of European descent were not harassed or bullied for carrying the disease because they did not represent the Other. They were not sufficiently different.

Let me say this clearly: No one is to blame for an epidemic or pandemic. There is no scapegoat to be had. People who are infected with the flu are not being punished. Viruses are equal opportunity infectors. They do not discriminate based on race, color, nationality, religious affiliation, gender, age, education, or wealth. The famous are not immune. The rich in their gated communities are no more immune than the poor struggling to make ends meet. They can catch the virus in the Club House buffet line just as easily as the family that shops at Walmart. While the aged are more likely to develop life-threatening symptoms due to their weakened immune system, they are no more or less susceptible to contracting the contagion than anyone else. A cough can infect the young and strong the same as it can infect the old and infirm. So too a sneeze can infect the rich or poor, the atheist or the religious.

During this Time of Pandemic we are all in it together. It is very likely that someone in your own family will contract the Coronavirus—your child, your spouse, your mother or father, your aunt or uncle, or your grandparents. Show as much compassion for others as you would for your own beloved family members. Here are some things to consider as the virus spreads and goods and services are interrupted.

Pandemic 5

Millions of children are food insecure at home. Sometimes, the only good meal they get is at school. Some schools send home “Buddy Packs” to help get them through the weekends. If schools close, those children may suffer from hunger and even malnutrition. Think about their needs during a crisis.


Pandemic 6The good folks who produce and transport gas to your local gas station may be sick, thereby interrupting the availability of fuel at gas stations. Long lines and rationing may follow. Remember: those refinery workers and truck drivers did not ask to be sick and to lose income by missing work. They too are suffering, as are their families. Be patient.

Pandemic 7Grocery store shelves may be empty of foods and other essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. They may have to ration what you are allowed to buy in order to give other people a chance to buy those necessary products. Do not begrudge others. Remember, other families need the same things you do. Show compassion for them. Do not hoard only for yourself.

Pandemic 8




Services like mail delivery and garbage collection may be impacted because workers are out sick. Show consideration. They would much rather be healthy.





Pandemic 9They say the average American has only about $400 in savings. I don’t know if people in other countries experience the same thing, but $400 isn’t enough to get through even a couple of weeks. As businesses close or reduce their workforce hours because fewer people are out shopping or frequenting businesses because of the virus, millions of employees may not be able to afford their rent or utilities or groceries or their car loan. Show compassion. You and your family could easily be in the same boat. Remember: no one asks to be infected. [Note: The day after I posted this blog, my long-time renter called to say he was moving out of my rental house immediately before a state or city shelter-in-place order so he could be with his ex-wife and their young daughter. He apologized for the inconvenience. Instead of being a stickler about the lease agreement, I wished him luck and told him it was the right choice to be with his family during this crisis.]

PandemicI recently went to my favorite hardware store. I go there even when I don’t have anything specific to buy because I enjoy looking at all the neat tools and hardware. I get ideas for projects. Like most stores, candy bars and gum have always been prominently and conveniently displayed by the cash registers. But when I went there the other day, gone was the candy and gum and jerky. Instead, pepper spray lined the aisle walls—dozens of them in different colors, including pink and sparkly. The message was clear: Be prepared to defend yourself. I felt a chill at the thought. It haunted my dreams that night.

As I said previously, we are all in this together. It is a human problem. We can get through it together by doing our part to help slow the spread of the virus by self-isolating and by showing compassion and mercy and charity for other people who are enduring the exact same thing you are enduring, even when they are in other parts of the world.  Our only adversary should be the virus.

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john smelcer dynamiteDr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion. Aside from a PhD, he earned a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Healthcare Administration from the Texas A&M University System. He was Director of Health Education at SouthCentral Foundation, part of the Alaska Native Medical Center complex in Anchorage, Alaska—one of the world’s preeminent institutions for indigenous healthcare. John Smelcer is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day and The Great Death, his timely new pocketbook of sayings to inspire compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, peace, and the spiritual life. A portion of the author's royalties will be donated to the Charter for Compassion.

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