Pandemics Don't Kill Compassion. Actually, They Bring It Out.

The coronavirus is narrowing class divisions and creating an amazing outbreak of compassion.


"Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too," is the headline over a David Brooks column in the New York Times predicting that the coronavirus is about to "inflame class divisions."

Well, if The New York Times editorial page is going to use the pandemic to confirm its prior assumptions, let me seize it to confirm mine, which is that news organizations can take the same set of facts and spin them in radically different ways.

Where Brooks sees a heightening of class divisions and a death of compassion, I see a narrowing of class divisions and an amazing outbreak of compassion.

On the class division front, for sure, it's better to be quarantined, or socially distanced, in a mansion than in a small apartment or in a homeless shelter. But the billionaire with floorside Final Four seats and a private plane to get him there and back is almost precisely as out-of-luck as the low-wage worker who was planning to watch it on television. The basketball game is equally canceled for both of them.

All those trillions of dollars of stock market wealth "incinerated" over the past few weeks did more to decrease inequality in this country than torrents of rhetoric from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) about never-to-be-implemented "wealth tax" plans. Those who took the largest losses are the people with the biggest retirement accounts.

I've seen the argument that white-collar professionals who can work from home and will keep getting paid are advantaged over, say, bartenders or waiters who find themselves suddenly unemployed, or over small retail business-owners who are seeing customers disappear. There's probably something to that. But we have a choice about how to view that. One can, like Brooks, focus on, and magnify, the "class divisions." Or one can observe that this pandemic is one of the few things left that leaves no one at all truly untouched, even those who avoid being infected by the virus.

The same depends-on-how-you-look-at-it approach applies to the compassion questions. Plenty of people have chosen to focus, negatively, on young, healthy people who went ahead and socialized in bars and restaurants on the theory that the virus was unlikely to affect them seriously. In so doing, they acted in callous disregard for how their action might speed the spread of the virus and thus potentially contribute to overwhelming the health care system, consigning elderly or previously sick individuals who get COVID-19 to death.

But many, many individuals and institutions—businesses, houses of worship, schools, governments—have chosen dramatically to modify their normal routines, at great cost, precisely for the purpose of slowing the spread of the virus, preventing the health care system from being overwhelmed, and making sure doctors and hospital beds are available for elderly or previously individuals who get Covid-19 and need the care.

Many other necessary employees—the checkout clerks at Walmart and Trader Joe's, the gas station attendant, police officers and firefighters—are showing up for work, notwithstanding that by doing so they are exposing themselves to a greater risk of infection. Whether that amounts to "compassion" or simply professionalism is an interesting question, but it is less bleak than the Brooks headline would have it.

If there is a "division" that stands to be heightened by the novel coronavirus or by Covid-19 it seems less likely to me to be the class one and more likely to be a generational one. As 70-something-year-olds President Donald Trump, former vice president Joe Biden, and Sanders compete in a presidential campaign, young people are being asked to stay home and contract the economy in part so that their elders don't die. Cue the "OK, boomer" comments. So far, the youngsters are taking it with, all told, minimal grumbling and remarkable good cheer.

How long that is sustainable is an open question. But if history is any guide, the pandemic may reduce polarization rather than accentuate it. It may add to a sense of common purpose and compassion, rather than destroy it. At some point, we may all even be nostalgic together for the moment not so long ago when people were bitterly complaining about class divisions and income inequality rather than singlemindedly focused on fighting disease and death.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.