The COVID-19 pandemic put everything to the test—from healthcare systems to supply chains to social safety nets. It’s also tested our moral character. We didn’t fail this last test, but we didn’t exactly make the honour roll, either.
Throughout lockdown, most of us behaved responsibly by practicing physical distancing and staying away from crowded places to flatten he curve. But as restrictions partially lifted, hundreds gathered unnecessarily in places like Vancouver’s boardwalks and Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park with no regard to safe distancing, just for a picnic.
How we behave in these situations is important, even beyond COVID-19. Our actions demonstrate our ability to put the greater good ahead of personal desires. Without that capacity, we’ll never tackle other global problems, from endemic poverty and climate change to the biggest test of our empathy these past few weeks, systemic racism.
Yes, isolation is hard, especially in urban areas and small living spaces. But it was still difficult to hear interviews on TV news in crowded spaces, versions of: “I don’t think this affects me.” If we have trouble considering the well-being of others more vulnerable to COVID-19, how can we begin to empathize with anyone outside of our own experience?
People of colour and Indigenous groups face racial injustice every day. Those of us who live with racial privilege don’t have that experience. Many Canadians have never suffered severe hunger. They don’t know what it’s like to flee their home country to escape war. A lack of lived experience doesn’t relieve us of responsibility; it means we need to work harder at empathy. We need to work harder to understand how we might be connected to someone else’s pain, and to act accordingly.
Most people understand that a relaxing day in a crowded park during a pandemic could help spread disease. That our actions impact others, like the nurse working 12-hour shifts who can’t see her family. Our daily habits are connected to climate change and to the Inuit communities most affected by melting polar ice. Our consumption habits are connected to workers in developing countries.
From empathy, we can better understand this interconnectedness. And then we can move to action.
Above all, COVID-19 tested our willingness to make small sacrifices, to prioritize the safety of others before our own comfort. Most of us learned to make these sacrifices, so let’s continue. We can give up coffee or take-out dinners for a month and make a donation to a group most affected by the pandemic. We can stand up for an immigrant being harassed on the bus or speak out when a friend or family member makes racist comments, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
COVID-19 was a moral test of our time, assessing our ability to think about others before ourselves and to take action for the greater good. It was a test, but not the final exam. We still have the opportunity to learn. We can still build on the character strengths and fix the moral weaknesses that COVID-19 revealed.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.