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  • Georgia Rodgers

Empathy Should Not Be Selective.

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Let’s set the scene, it’s 2020, and a pandemic has broken out around the world. Everyone is in a panic to keep their families safe. Individuals have become cautionary, concerned for their wellbeing and have removed themselves from situations where they feel they may become vulnerable to this health crisis. Some people are even stockpiling food, medication, toiletry supplies and anything else that they feel is necessary to keep their families protected during this time of uncertainty.

Let us now set another scene, war has broken out within your country, and you are in fear for your life and family’s safety. A group of militias are persecuting people like you and your family. You are in immediate danger.

Now, let me ask you a question; would you respond with similar reactions to both the first scenario as you would with the second?

On behalf of those reading, I would like to assume that the majority of us would indeed answer yes. If anything, in a time of war and persecution, we may even act more hastily and make choices that can often be viewed as risky and irrational. However, in a time where your family’s safety is in jeopardy, the last thing we are often thinking of is rational ways of reacting. Because the situation that is before us in a time of war and conflict, is far from rational and we would do anything to protect our families; much like we are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During this current climate that the world has found itself within, COVID-19 has shown many sides to humanity we are often not exposed to. It has shown not only the way people can react out of uncertainty and fear, but it has also demonstrated the major contradiction the West continues to show in their treatment towards refugees and their position within this world.

We see such a contradiction through the hasty actions we are taking to protect our families in a time of perceived threat, as opposed to the lack of empathy shown throughout a majority of history for those fleeing immediate danger and persecution around the world.

The situation of COVID-19 has become greatly empathised and prioritised. In comparison to the situations of many displaced people around the world, that continues to be greeted with great hostility and resentment. It is hard to deny that these current proactive reactions for COVID-19, have come from a general place of privilege. We live in a society that seems only capable of empathy and compassion if it affects us directly.

@whatsupboosh on Twitter sums up this argument perfectly:

“The people who reject scientists warning about climate change but immediately buy every bottle of hand sanitizer when scientists warn them about coronavirus, prove that it was never about disbelieving. It’s about what doesn’t directly affect them and what does.”

This argument similarly reflects the current attitude and positioning of a majority of the West in relation to refugees. Our hostility towards these vulnerable people is a contradiction to our current desperate reactions during this pandemic. We cannot continue to question the motives behind such risks and the lengths people will take to keep their families safe if we are doing the very same thing in a situation that can be considered less threatening and traumatic.

If we were to step back and consider these situations, while one cannot even start to be comparable with the other, we could also argue that these reactions are similar in their responses and motives. When we break both down, we are wanting nothing more than what’s best for our families. The only difference is, the West has a tendency to ‘other’ groups of people that are perceived as foreign to what is considered relatable. We have a predisposition to categorise the world, and it’s people, into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and with such categories, our experiences are also separated and valued. Through this process, some individual’s experiences are legitimised and met with compassion, and others are scrutinised and met with hostility.

It can be considered almost ludicrous to compare an individual’s experience of persecution and conflict, that is often filled with trauma and loss, with a global pandemic that is forcing people to stay in the comfort of their homes. But the reality is, people of privileged backgrounds, magnify situations that threaten their comfortable livelihoods, and forget to look beyond themselves and recognise anyone else’s struggles within the world that does not affect them directly.

But if it’s a way to get people to relate, then it’s important to highlight it in any way that we can.

COVID-19 has seen new restrictions throughout the world. There have been global travel bans, many schools and businesses have shut down, people have been forced into lockdown, and fear has spread amongst communities, globally. People are scared to leave their homes. Panic has been brought upon by limited supplies, and there is overall anxiety throughout the world due to the uncertainty of this current situation.

Currently, life is on hold for everyone. These are universally shared feelings; an experience that is very rare and is something that we as humanity have not experienced regularly throughout history. But these feelings are not uncommon, and they are not feelings that are new to this world that have just been brought upon as a result of COVID-19. These experiences are felt on a daily basis by millions of displaced people around the world today.

In no way should we undermine the current dire situation that has been caused by COVID-19. It is one that has brought about great loss and continues to bring about significant feelings of uncertainty. However, it is important we continue to be aware of our position within society and the privilege we continue to hold still.

Around the world, people have been in lockdown for years. People have lived in separation of their loved ones and restricted from travel much longer than what is expected with COVID-19. The reality is, in places like Palestine, Afghanistan and Syria, people have been living in uncertainty for years. There is no comfort within their homes to wait out their crisis; they live in immediate danger; a danger that is not easily comparable, one that does not involve sitting at home, on the couch and practising good hygiene.

While the virus has created economic disaster and hardships around the world for many communities; it should not be forgotten that we can rebuild. And hopefully, with some perspective, we can gain greater compassion for those around the world that have been in more serious situations of fear and danger; situations that are not so easily rebuilt and forgotten. The refugee experience is one that can be so foreign to those living in the West. Still, ironically, our response and reaction to this current epidemic are reactions and feelings we mutually share during these desperate times. So why do we continue to treat refugees in such a foreign way?

Amir Sahragard, an Iranian refugee who spent six years detained under Australia’s inhumane rule on Manus Island, who is now resettled within Canada, reflects on similar thoughts:

So have little sympathy for your fellow refugees. Remember us when the virus passes, and your life returns to normal. We’re still here, and life isn’t getting any easier, virus or no virus. Consider our situation, and it may help you appreciate what you have in better time. This current time of difficulty and disruptions is just a glimpse of what refugees have to go through our whole lives”.

If this current epidemic has shown us one thing, it is our reaction to uncertainty, and the lengths people will take to keep their families safe during anxious times. People are clearing out stores because they fear they will miss out on necessities and that their families will go hungry. Yet, it’s important to remember how many people face this reality on a daily basis; with or without an epidemic.

Despite the uncertainty of this situation and the fear that may ignite, we mustn’t forget that these sentiments will pass, and we will return to our normal lives of freedom and security. But, for many, a foreseeable safe future is not ahead of them. There is no certainty, no ‘normal’, and there is no security waiting for them at the end of a vaccine. These feelings are their everyday experiences, and they are fleeing from situations far more threatening than our situation of lockdown in the comfort of our own homes.

We must remember these feelings and hold onto them when we come out of this uncertain time. We must remind each other of the lengths we took to comfort ourselves in a time of chaos, and remember we made choices to help keep our families safe.

With these reminders, we must keep them in the forefront of our minds and emerge from this experience with greater compassion and understanding towards those who face this reality of uncertainty and fear in their everyday lives. People who face violence, inequality, persecution, conflict, poverty and displacement every day. People who do not have the privilege of staying at home and waiting out this fear. Individuals who are forced to flee from everything they know, forced to put their families in situations that risk their lives, and have to make these decisions hastily and with little options.

We must also remember the many men and women who are currently locked up in indefinite detention, under Australia’s inhumane control. These individuals have fled to Australia for protection and refuge, and are now confined within these facilities, indefinitely; with little protection or certainty. They are in serious threat to not only this virus, but many other human rights abuses. They too have few options.

But we have options, a choice to be more compassionate, to welcome these people with open arms and to remember that we would also do everything possible to keep our families safe, in situations less threatening and traumatic.

So why can’t we accept the same for others?

We have a privilege within this society, a position that allows us to make a choice, to live freely with decisions and complete autonomy over our lives. For a short period in our lives, our autonomy has been threatened. But unlike for many, our autonomy will return, and we can begin to rebuild our normality.

With such a privilege and position, we hold immense power to make a change. This ability for change should be used effectively and compassionately and include those in fear for their lives every day, in every situation around the world. We must remember these moments within our history and remember that our experiences and inherent needs within this world are not too dissimilar and that in order for a peaceful world, one that is free from suffering, we must keep our doors open for everyone.


While we all have time at home, please take a moment to sign the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s petition to protect people seeking asylum and refugees during the COVID-19 crisis:

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