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Ask the Experts: Caring During the Coronavirus

Drew University’s Merel Visse weighs in from a medical humanities point of view

March 2020 – Amid Drew University’s decision to move instruction and business operations online for the remainder of the semester, we’ve reached out to some of our faculty experts to put the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic into perspective.

We talked with Merel Visse, associate professor and director of Medical and Health Humanities, who offered her expertise in a paper, Spreading the Care: The Call for Global Solidarity, written with Bob Stake, professor emeritus of education, University of Illinois.

The Q&A below is taken from excerpts of this paper.

How could a caring approach help us find our way of responding to a pandemic?

(There are) three concentric circles of care. The first care circle is our intimate circle. It consists of the life-sustaining web of our family and friends, no matter if they are living in the same house, or far away. The second circle is the community that we are part of. Here, the web extends to our colleagues at work, acquaintances in our neighborhood, the cashier at our local supermarket, friends of friends, our spiritual or religious communities. The third care circle seems more distant and abstract, but is actually very nearby. It is the tapestry of all those who reside in respective countries, closely connected with the rest of the world. This circle is a national and global circle.

How can we listen and respond to our needs?

(This kind of) care begins by connecting with ourselves, by closely listening to our bodies. Next, allying ourselves with reliable sources on our health and well-being. Organizations such as the Center for Disease Control teach us about what is happening, how it may affect our health and well-being, and what we can do. So far, the media gives most attention to our physical health. We also need to care for our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Next, in our immediate care circle, care is about paying attention and listening to our own needs and the needs of close ones. Remember: needs are not always clear-cut or visible. Some may not tell us what they need, either because they do not know, or they have difficulty speaking up. Pay close attention when you sense something is “off” with someone that you know. Ask. Probe. Ask again.

How does discrimination and stigmatization come into play?

People may be fearful to admit that they have symptoms. What if they are judged or blamed? Why not do our very best to refrain from any judgment, and instead show compassion and understanding as a form of care? Here, care is also about responding to our needs and to the needs of others. By responding and by taking action, we show and take responsibility. We do something for ourselves and others. We may buy them groceries, we may bring them to the doctor, we may even advocate for them, but many times simply sitting down with someone and taking the time to listen, can be a significant act of care.

There are no clear-cut ethical guidelines for us follow, the situation is too complex for general rules.

How do we come together as a community?

We may need to revise our view on how to make the right decisions. Decisions on who needs care the most urgently, how to better protect nurses and doctors, or what should be done for the elderly or chronically ill, cannot be made from one stance only. We cannot expect that other people will take responsibility for situations that we are responsible for together. Who decides about who needs most the last pack of toilet paper? Instead of hoarding toilet paper, every one of us is called to care about the others by not buying all available goods.

We need to practice solidarity. We need to trust. Share products with those who need it the most, trust that we will have enough for ourselves. There are no clear-cut ethical guidelines for us follow, the situation is too complex for general rules, but many are working hard to develop protocols. We already see many stores putting a limit on products that people are allowed to buy. No more than three packages of medicine. But what if someone suffers from a chronic illness and is more vulnerable to infection than others? Should people without a chronic illness share their packages? Reaching decisions on what is the best path to follow, should take these subtle differences into consideration. Trust the pharmacist. Trust the receptionist.

How can we be a caring society during a pandemic?

On a national and international level we are expected to be a ‘pandemic’ citizen. We are called to follow regulations by being a responsible citizen. We are demanded to act in the interest of the collective. Compliance, self-mastery and self-protection align with that vital view. This view is challenging too, because people are assumed to be rational beings, capable of compliance and self-mastery. The last few weeks show that reality may be different. People are capable, and vulnerable too. They cannot fully ‘self-master’ their lives all the time and in every situation. Some of us carry particular responsibilities that conflict with these expectations. For example, the care-worker who is exhausted but who carries on because nobody else is able to stand in. Who takes care of her?

How can we stay connected and care for one another while social distancing?

Yes: as a pandemic citizen, social distancing is crucial. As a caring citizen, we also search for ways to stay connected with close and distant others. To keep social distancing healthy, we need an outlook on how to support people who are living in isolation. How they can preserve and maintain their relationships, whilst complying with regulations.

For many, being in isolation, at least for a while, may come with the gift of time, silence and solitude. But what if some do not experience this as a gift at all? What if our jobs are on the line? What if we miss graduation day? What if we lose that which makes us human: the experience of being close to someone or someplace we care about? Care in this third circle means expanding our response to the virus with a vision on how to protect the notions that are central to a global, caring society: solidarity, equity and trust. This is a call for a global solidarity.

Check out other discussions in our Ask the Experts series here.

For the latest information regarding Drew’s response to the coronavirus, visit the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) resource site.

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