The Covid attack on empathy, sympathy and compassion

It is now official. The coronavirus mitigation policy of President Trump and state governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds is now essentially, “Sorry, old folks and immigrant workers, a lot of you are gonna die.” As a member of that honored class, pardon me if I am angry today.

The coronavirus has taken a huge hit on three bedrocks of human societal interaction, three overlapping but distinct ethical concepts called empathy, sympathy, and compassion. My preferred semantic distinction among these three words goes like this:

  1. Empathy is an innate human sensation, sometimes close to pain.
  2. Sympathy is a cognitive function. It comes from rationally coping with that empathic pain.
  3. Compassion is human brain action arising from the first two; it does something.

I like to visualize these three via a Venn diagram with three largely overlapping, yet distinct circles. You may personally possess any one, two, or all three of these qualities in differing amounts and at different times in your life.



The late, great science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote several times in his often-quirky case study collections of the long medical understanding that empathy is a very fragile brain function. Most people, but not all, have it to some degree. But the regions in the brain from which it originates seem especially vulnerable to injury, stroke, tumors, and conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease.

You may have known someone, as I have, who seemingly lost their sense of caring for other people after an illness, or during the state of terminal mental decline. You literally watch that “kind person you knew” disappear and witness another, more nasty, one emerge.

Many neuroscientists see the empathetic brain response as a key input to overall human brain decision-making, along with other brain functions like rational thinking and “fast thinking” goal-based responses. This is especially true in the decisions of such societal weight that we call them “moral” or “ethical.” Evolution has “selected” for empathy because it improved our species’ survival more often than not.

Empathy is also closely tied to the theory of mind, the ability of humans to “see themselves” in another person’s life experiences, joys and pains. Many extend that perception to other living creatures as well. Indeed, some mammals, such as dogs, seem especially good at “reading” human emotions. My beagle certainly does. While still a matter of some debate, that canine reaction is certainly somewhere down the “empathy vector.”

However, empathy can be dulled. This is the goal of wartime propaganda and, I would contend, recent presidential speeches. The “enemy” is “less than human,” perhaps even “human scum,” and does not deserve our humane treatment. Entire nations fall for this stuff frequently in history, and the killing begins.

Let me assert that this is the current propaganda messaging process behind the official language that emphasizes the biggest impact of Covid-19 being in eldercare facilities like nursing homes. “These people are going to die soon anyway” or “You know that Covid fatality was diabetic,” are messages intentionally designed to dull the natural pangs of human empathy that we ought to be feeling. If enough people get their “empathy pain” rationalized away, then we can re-open the bars.


As I noted earlier, sympathy takes these human empathetic feelings and tries to turn them into useful language and ideas. This is where the best of the great religious and poetic language comes from, likely from our earliest times. We have an innate need to share our “empathy pain” with others, and religious gatherings have been perhaps the primary human outlet for these sympathetic expressions since our earliest days on Earth.

The initial coronavirus messages from U.S. health authorities did the opposite of negative wartime propaganda here. In March and April, many of us voluntarily and rationally cut back our lives dramatically in order to slow down or stop the horrific scenes that we were seeing played out in New York City hospitals, or more quietly in nursing homes in rural Iowa where Grandma lives. People were dying at an exponential rate of growth, and we believed that we could stop that “R-naught” disease transmission factor.

And dozens of countries have done just that. The leadership and the people of the United States really screwed this one up. Top U.S. leaders, even “religious” ones, are now portraying that same very rational, human, and religious sympathetic response as “weak.”

Back to the Venn diagram, it is possible to have sympathy without empathy. Studies of people with psychopathic tendencies but “normal” lives have shown two things. First, some people just do not “feel” empathy very often. However, the bright psychopaths learn that fitting in to society means that you have to “learn the language” of sympathetic response.

You can also feel great empathic pain and be quite incapable of expressing “the right words” in appropriate situations. I have spent enough time on funeral receiving lines to no longer take offense at awkward or banal comments of intended sympathy to the grieving family. As much as “caring,” the expression of honest sympathy also often requires a knowledge of the scriptural and literary language of that society. I can be tongue-tied in these situations as much as anybody.


Of course, words need to turn into action, and that is where compassion comes in. We can act against tragedy or injustice only to a certain point as individuals. In the case of this virus, it may only be in very modest but kind ways like sewing masks and giving them away. Or in self-sacrificial acts such as getting groceries for high-risk neighbors. Or not intentionally passing on your symptoms to the rest of the world. We all “have our part” here.

But let’s get real. Significant action needs Political Power, and Power usually means Money. “The Greatest Political Power on Earth” could still reverse the course of the Covid-19 R-naught through several power moves, many of them relatively easy like improving the N95 mask supply, or in public messaging and by example about wearing masks. But it won’t. And that is criminal.

I see this “Power Choice” especially in my current state of Florida, which had Covid-19 on the run in April despite a science and math-denying governor. However, it now posts a new confirmed case record almost daily. My local shopping mall looks like a scene from a disaster movie, with hundreds of cars lined up seven days a week. Uniformed National Guard volunteers direct cars and help administer tests in the heavy summer heat. Too many tests come back positive, just a couple of weeks after “opening the economy.”

I have long been involved with a small international development NGO that develops innovative ways to address poverty in ten Third World countries. I have even visited several of their sites high in the Bolivian Andes. But my “compassion action” is quite minor here compared to the folks on the ground who “walk the walk” daily at great personal sacrifice. We are fortunately seeing this “compassion in action” every day among the frontline medical workers, often poorly paid, who try to abate every coronavirus threat that comes within reach.

But basic democracy is this: we can all stand and shout and vote to demand that our political leaders more effectively use that “Money Power of the commons” that is under their control. They need act with “Compassion Action” urgency, even if personally they show no signs of living in the Venn diagram sections that encircle empathy or sympathy.

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2 thoughts on “The Covid attack on empathy, sympathy and compassion

  1. Pingback: When your pain becomes our pain – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: “Sucks to Be You” ethics revisited – When God Plays Dice

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