The Back Road: Got empathy?

The Island Now

By Andrew Malekoff

Whatever happened to one for all and all for one?

Looking out for one another during the pandemic necessitates full participation in preventive measures. Yet that is not what is happening in large swaths of America where a toxic amalgam of fear and misinformation prevails.

It is difficult to address another’s fear without empathy, without understanding the basis and depth of their fear. Is it reality-based or fueled by conspiracy theories?

For a number of Black people, the 40-year-long Tuskegee Study to examine the natural history of untreated syphilis has contributed to their justified suspicion. The research, initiated in 1932 by the U.S. government, was conducted without informed consent. After penicillin was found to be the most effective treatment, it was withheld from infected test subjects.

If you know that your descendants were deceived by government scientists, why agree to take a new vaccination endorsed by government scientists? It would take a leap of faith and trust in government authorities, given that the legacy of Tuskegee is already baked into the cake.

There are individuals who are scared about the vaccine’s potential impact on fertility and children’s well-being. Such fears do not come out of nowhere. For example, in November 1961 thalidomide was taken off the market after it led to the deaths of approximately 2,000 children and birth defects in more than 10,000, most of whom lived in West Germany. Its original use was for the treatment of nausea in pregnant women.

Many moms and dads continue to believe that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is a risk factor for children to develop autism, despite the many well-designed studies that found no link between the two. Vaccine mandates will not titrate terror, only empathy and understanding have a fighting chance.

Today, rigorous protocols are required for all new medications before full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, providing that the benefit of the medication outweighs the risks for its purported use. However, when an approved vaccine is mandated to guard against contagion and one’s employment, schooling or ability to travel are threatened, the issue of one’s autonomy is compromised and refusal to comply requires significant sacrifice.

Fear is heightened by misinformation. Confusion is worsened when the facts about natural immunity following infection are either concealed or not made clear to us. There is much to sort out and when the sorting is aggravated by anxiety, clarity becomes near impossible to achieve.

Collectively, government officials have done a poor job of communicating effectively with consistent coordinated messaging. And, as we know, social media exacerbates misunderstanding, stokes fear and further fragments us, deepening the fissures in the body politic.

As someone who is immune-compromised as the result of a recent stem cell transplant, I trust my doctor’s guidance about taking the vaccine. But Tuskegee is not sewn into my psyche and my children are grown. A no-brainer decision for me is not so simple for all of my fellow Americans. Railing against so-called anti-vaxxers is much easier than trying to understand where they are coming from. Not all are “political.”

Increasingly, the term “tribal” is used to represent the incremental erosion of national unity. Disparate groups are fueled by fear-inducing misinformation. While there have always been tribes, historically during times of major national crises, divisive boundaries dissolve and collective empathy and resolve ramp up, transforming us into one American community, standing shoulder-to-shoulder through the storm.

GoFundMe campaigns demonstrate that when our neighbors are hurting, local politics take a back seat to empathy and altruism. In such moments we are reminded that the “unity gene” still exists. Yet with respect to finding our way through the pandemic, that gene remains dormant for far too many.

What is it that allows us to get behind one ailing child in our neighborhood, yet escapes us from unifying to curtail the contagious path of a virus that has left more than 700,000 dead and millions more grieving?

Could it be that we live in a political ecosystem that is terminally ill, so polluted with misinformation and failing empathy that humankind has become an endangered species? If this is too painful to face, we can always buy more toilet paper and bottled water.

In her examination of con artists and their victims, psychologist Anna Konnikova concluded that “there’s nothing a con artist likes better that exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change.”

Our world is most certainly changing and the con artists appear to have gained the upper hand.

Only empathy will keep the despots at bay.

TAGGED: andrew malekoff
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