#reHumanize Project: Coronavirus, Racism, and Empathy

Emily Hardy, who spent time living in East Asia, helps us think a bit about the racist undertones we’ve seen in some of the discussions about the Coronavirus.

Words are indeed felt. The conversations we engage in and the language we use to discuss the realities of others are meaningful. 

The world came into being through conversation. God spoke. In response: existence. 

It must be valuable.

Yet somehow we forget this, as is evidenced in the discourse I’ve seen among Western cultures about coronavirus.

Really, to make this a bit more personal, this is discourse I hear among patients at the hospital I work at too.

I work in a lung cancer clinic and my role is not of the same importance as a doctor or a nurse, but it allows me to have the most dialogue with the patients we see.

Most of the world at this point in time with the spread of the virus most recently dubbed COVID-19 is taking precautions and we are no exception.

This means that every day I am blessed (that’s the word I’ll choose to use, though the one I’d like to use has a similar but opposite meaning) with the task of asking patients if they’ve travelled internationally in the past month.

“Are you asking me this because of that stuff in China?”

 “China is dirty. I’d never go there!”

“Oh, yeah that coronavirus in China is bad. I suppose that happens because they’re poor and can’t afford to clean their food.”

“Those Chinese. There’s just too many of them and that’s why this stuff happens.”

The statements written here are not verbatim and unfortunately, they’re probably more forgiving than what was actually said.

China, the epicenter of the virus, is home to many of my most cherished friends. I suppose that makes it that much easier for me to feel a deep sense of loss at what I hear people saying in response to the situation.

The kinds of oversimplified statements I’ve heard being used to explain the cause of illness and suffering among a people group make me weep. It is a sincere problem, if we believe that these claims are not harmful.

It’s a problem partly because what’s being said here is not being said in its wholeness. There’s an entire underbelly of context that isn’t being explored. Every place comes into being through historical, cultural, systemic, environmental, and spiritual mingling.  The life rhythms of a place are reflective of that. To say China’s food preparation practices are unsafe is unfair unless we are also choosing to move the conversation further into deeper understanding.

Even so, once we have rightfully taken a statement to its proper end through this kind of exploration, what was our motivation behind doing so? What is that really doing for the lives in crisis in this very moment?

I do not want to dismiss the value in attempting to understand the cause of a disease so that it can be prevented in the future. I do, however, want to emphasize the importance of reframing our thinking so that we can better hold space for the pain others are experiencing in the moment they are experiencing it.

Empathy is not birthed through the collection of knowledge, facts, and understanding. It is available to us always without condition.

In any worldwide catastrophe whether it be mass spread disease, political tension, war, systemic racism, or something else, we need to remember that those affected are first and foremost victims. For the sake of these victims, our responses cannot be thoughtless and they should not assume blame.

We must do the hard work of considering before we speak and act how what we are doing is going to impact the insides and outsides of ourselves.

I say “we” consistently throughout this piece of writing intentionally because this is a collective movement toward growth, rightness, and holiness. Everything is interconnected. If it’s about me, it’s about the rest of the world too.

That being said, all of this is a reminder for myself to be better.

It is a reminder that I continue to fail to provide the right kind of togetherness for those who are suffering. It is a reminder of how easy it is to come to conclusions that further increase hurt. It is a reminder that unknowing can be good as to allow myself to be present in the moment with pain that does not have an explanation. And it is a reminder that there will always be a world full of people I do not know or understand that need my empathy to remind them they are seen and they are not alone.

Emily Hardy is an alumni of Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Since graduating in 2015 she has continued to explore the human-God connection in her homes of Oregon, Ohio, and East Asia. She’s not a cat person.

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