Kindness has been a pervasive theme since the pandemic began, on both a global and local scale.
A crisis of this proportion crashes us all together and forces us to rely on each other in ways we haven’t had to in a generation. And there is a sense that our ability to survive this hinges on individual and collective kindness – on how well we, as a society, can work with each other and for each other.
And many are being kind. Thousands of us are discovering reserves of compassion and empathy that we have never had to use before.
Every Thursday evening, for ten weeks, we stopped what we were doing and came out to clap in the streets for the NHS and key workers. We are posting notes through our neighbours’ doors offering help, buying shopping for elderly loved ones, volunteering for the NHS, considering career changes to the care sector.
In fact, a survey of more than 2,000 British adults from April found that 45% hope to continue looking out for one another post-lockdown.
The research, conducted by One4All, found that when life goes back to some semblance of normal, 52% say they will continue to appreciate family and friends more. 38% say they will continue to have a greater sense of the importance of community.
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More than a third of people (36%) believe that a crisis like coronavirus brings out the best in people.
But, as reassuring as it is to think about the positive elements of human nature that we have seen throughout this crisis, this isn’t the whole story.
Lockdown has turned loads of people into judgmental snitches. Tweeting photos and videos, shaming people as ‘selfish’, usually without having any idea of the individual circumstances of the people allegedly flouting the rules.
So, what is the truth? Is the clapping and the rainbows and the banging of the pots merely an empty, performative gesture?
A lot of this judgment stems from fear and anxiety, a frustration at seeming injustices – which is understandable, but not really in the spirit of kindness.
Fear can cause people to act unkindly, selfishly – out of a desire to protect themselves and their loved ones. And we have seen a lot of that too.
Beyond that, the world does not seem like a kind place for Black people right now.
There have been an increase of reports of racism, individual instances of key workers being berated, instances of key government officials putting lives at risk by flouting the rules.
A Black woman died of coronavirus after being spat at while she was trying to do her job.
Thousands of protesters have been forced to take to the streets to fight for the right to exist and to demand justice against police brutality and systemic racism. While we have seen incredible support and solidarity for Black lives, the fact that this has to happen during a global pandemic is not indicative of a particularly ‘kind’ world.
So, what is the truth? Is the clapping and the rainbows and the banging of the pots merely an empty, performative gesture?
The global crisis has undeniably brought out the best in so many people. But when you scratch the surface, you quickly realise that this pandemic has actually laid bare some of the darkest, most unpleasant elements of human nature.
Could coronavirus make us nicer people?
Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says that in times of struggle, crisis and hardship bring out both the best and the worst in us – which means this dichotomous reaction makes perfect sense.
‘The coronavirus pandemic is the first time in the history of most people’s memories that we have gone through something so devastating together as a global community,’ Dr Roberta tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This shared traumatic experience has forced us to face our own moral values, our vulnerabilities, feelings of helplessness and mortality.’
She says that in the past, we may have tried to protect ourselves these painful experiences through self-interest, materialism, consumerism and fast-paced lives – but none of these strategies can protect us from coronavirus, so we are having to use a different approach.
‘Coronavirus has also enabled many people to take the time and space to evaluate their relationship with the world, people, themselves, and what is really important,’ she adds. ‘This has enabled people to take new perspectives on life which focus on meaning and experiences over materials.’
She says these new perspectives can include an appreciation of others, the interdependence we have on each other, and the fact that we cannot survive on our own.
‘This sense of interconnectedness has helped to strengthen our sense of our humanity and need for social and collective responsibility,’ she adds.
Living through a personal crisis can lead to post-traumatic stress, but Dr Roberta says it can also trigger a post-traumatic growth response. Meaning living through a traumatic event can actually make you a better person.
‘The collective pandemic experience has led to some people becoming “Covid-Kind”,’ she explains. ‘They are more caring, compassionate, empathetic, and interested (inwardly and outwardly) in the welfare of others.
‘This also extends to behavioural acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity.
‘Coronavirus challenges the core of the human experience, and there is a strong personal identification with others within the pandemic experience. This can nurture greater levels of emotional intelligence and empathy within people.’
David Jamilly is the founder and CEO of Kindness UK, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes kindness in all aspects of life. He believes kindness has been a crucial response to the global crisis, and that it is here to stay.
‘Kindness has proven to be a life-saver for many during this period and without kindness there would without a shadow of doubt have been much greater incidences of mental stress,’ David tells Metro.co.uk.
This shared traumatic experience has forced us to face our own moral values, our vulnerabilities, feelings of helplessness and mortality.
‘By it’s nature, kindness is always present in all of us, but rather like a snow globe, it needs refreshing from time to time to remind us.’
David says that much more ‘local’ kindness than ‘global’ kindness, and he says this is encouraging because it creates a sense of community and is more likely to continue when the crisis if over.
‘It is through community initiatives that kindness can have greatest long term effect as it becomes part our day to day life,’ says David. ‘A bottom-upwards approach.’
‘The demonstration of global kindness during this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe has the power to be a game-changer for how we all conduct ourselves.’
David says that when people have more time, like in lockdown, there’s more chance of positive values and kindness coming to the surface and being activated.
‘Conversely, when people are under time, performance and financial pressure positive values like kindness are less likely to be prevalent,’ he says.
This suggests that when life goes back to normal, we could all revert to our selfish, individual ways – our new-found values of kindness could go out the window.
Will we be able to keep caring for each other, keep appreciating each other, when the stresses of normal life return?
Will coronavirus kindness last beyond the pandemic?
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we are all bracing ourselves for a new version of normal.
In many ways, life may never look the same as it once did. Of course, that’s a scary thought, but there are potential positives in that as well.
If the world is different, maybe we will be able to forge a new, kinder way of being. Maybe, in the new normal, there will be more space for compassion, empathy and selflessness.
‘A large part of the UK and global management strategy of coronavirus has been based on social responsibility – like imploring people to stay home to save lives,’ says Dr Roberta.
‘Social responsibility suggests that individuals are accountable for fulfilling their civic duty. As such, the actions of an individual must benefit the whole of society. The utilisation of social responsibility coupled with the experience of coronavirus-related personal traumas have been instrumental in shaping our social conscience.’
Behaviour can revert back to individual focus, rather than societal focus, when the immediate danger has passed.
Whether this effect has the potential to be long-lasting depends, Dr Roberta says, on the balance between the welfare of society, the welfare of the individual, the economy and the environment.
‘If this equilibrium is maintained, then social responsibility is accomplished and changes that have been implemented are likely to be sustained,’ says Dr Roberta. ‘However, there also has to be an understanding, acceptance and internalisation (a personal ownership) of the change for it to be incorporated in to the new normal.
‘Attempts to address the anxieties and concerns which may be underpinning behavioural changes have to be made.’
Dr Roberta says that when we change our behaviour because of fear or anxiety, these changes are generally not sustainable and won’t last.
‘When the anxieties are allayed, behavioural changes tend to revert back to pre-issue status,’ she explains. ‘They can revert back to individually focused ones, rather than societal focused ones, as the immediate danger/threat to one’s life has passed.
‘However, when traumatic events occur (such as a pandemic), the impact can be so significant that the behaviour changes seen do not disappear.’
This is a positive sign. Dr Roberta is saying that the trauma from coronavirus has been so monumental, and so widespread, that the kindness and increased empathy may have become embedded into our collective psyche.
‘In response to Coronavirus we have surprised ourselves at how well we have been able to change, and live and work in new ways that three months ago would have been unheard of,’ she adds.
‘Many of the behavioural and attitudinal changes we have implemented and experienced during coronavirus will be kept.
‘We have been primed to be hyper-vigilant to coronavirus, and the management message being changed from a “react and contain” position to one of prevention, supports this.
‘This shift also helps us to feel more in control of the pandemic and its effects. As we enter the “Adjustment Stage” of the pandemic we continue to monitor the coronavirus situation and prepare to ease out of the lockdown period.
‘A strong and pervasive sense that the world is fundamentally unpredictable is apparent. Life feels more fragile than it once did.’
Could the pandemic increase divisions and make us worse?
In some ways this situation has brought people together in a collective struggle, but it is also clear that the global crisis is driving people apart.
Activists are warning that the impacts of the pandemic will deepen racial divides and worsen inequality in society. There are fears that it is the most vulnerable, marginalised groups who will be hardest hit by this crisis and take the longest time to recover.
Just as the kindness triggered by this pandemic could become embedded in society, so too could this negativity. There is the possibility that the divisions created by coronavirus could linger well beyond the peak of the crisis.
‘The pandemic has had negative effects and polarised sections of society,’ says Dr Roberta.
‘There is a level of mistrust and anxiety about the management of the pandemic that has unfortunately divided the nation. It is clear that if the balance between the welfare of society, the welfare of the individual and the economy is off, instances of discrimination, inequality and financial instability can be exacerbated.
‘As a result, we may see a re-emergence of individual or self-interest focused behaviours through choice and obligation and a return to some “pre-coronavirus” ways of being.’
Dr Roberta says it is important not to idealise life before coronavirus. She says we had problems before the pandemic and we will have problems again – but now we have a rare opportunity for progress on our hands.
‘As time progresses, we will gain a deeper understanding of the constructive and destructive long-term effects of the pandemic and its management,’ she says.
‘We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect fundamental change which benefits all levels of society.
‘It is hoped that we can embody the idea that we are more powerful when we look out for, look after and empower each other, and that this can become a foundational element in the development of the new normal going forward.’
As Dr Roberta says – this is an opportunity for change.
One of the hardest thing about the pandemic is our lack of control. It’s scary to feel as though we can’t protect our loved ones, that we can’t protect the financial security of our family, that our future is somewhat out of hands.
But one thing we can control is how we respond to the events that happen to us.
Kindness is a choice – and something that we are all capable of prioritising in our lives.
Do you believe the pandemic will have a positive impact on society in the long-term?
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What Comes Next?
After months of strict lockdown measures, isolation and anxiety – we’re beginning to look to the future.
What will life look like when we emerge into our new normal?
Can things ever be the same as they were? Do we even want them to be the same?
What Comes Next is our series of in-depth features unpicking the possibilities for the future.
Every day for two weeks, we will look at the future of work, dating, mental health, friendships, money, travel, and all the other elements that make up our existence.
Our lives have been turned upside down, but change doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
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