A staff member of Woodstock Brewery prepares vegetable soup for the needy using brewing equipment. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
A staff member of Woodstock Brewery prepares vegetable soup for the needy using brewing equipment. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Altruism can alleviate our Covid-19 blues

By Reneva Fourie Time of article published May 18, 2020

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A universal anxiety fills the air. Anxiety due to a loss of hope; anxiety due to a sense of despair. It is an anxiety of the unknown for we know not what is out there.

The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged us into an ocean of unpredictability and unleashed a plethora of insecurities. The known patterns of life are fading.  Certainty is no longer as definitive. Circumstances are less controlled, and many plans have had to be put on hold – perhaps forever.  

The Covid-19-induced anxieties are driven by the basic need to survive. It is difficult to address the need to survive when the timeframe of the threat associated with the pandemic is limitless. It might all end in a few months or it may last a few years.

It is difficult to plan a future when the economic impact of the threat is undefined. Companies may find new ways of operating and new industries might emerge or companies might collapse en masse and leave billions unemployed.

It is hard to step outside without knowing if the pandemic spread has been contained or if one is likely to become a statistic in the rising infection and death toll.

Some are anxious about where they will get their next meal; while others are anxious about whether their savings and pensions are secure for the future. The health and welfare of loved ones, generally, are permanent sources of anxiety. All these concerns have caused sleep to be erratic.

At the launch of its policy brief – Covid-19 and the need for action on mental health on Thursday May 14, the United Nations noted that “During the Covid-19 emergency, people are afraid of infection, dying, and losing family members. At the same time, vast numbers of people have lost or are at risk of losing their livelihoods, have been socially isolated and separated from loved ones, and, in some countries, have experienced stay-at-home orders implemented in drastic ways.” 

A potential global spike in suicides and drug abuse has led the UN to call on countries to protect the most vulnerable from mental health crises during and after Covid-19.

The UN announcements are in line with the predictions by analysts, which have empowered responsible leaders to make the necessary preparations to ensure that anticipated social anxieties are managed. Many political leaders, our own President Ramaphosa included, have presented industrious plans to install confidence in public governance; thereby ticking all the boxes that match effective transformational leadership.

Healthcare professionals are bravely displaying their competence and commitment; going the extra mile to demonstrate their abilities to provide effective medical services. Security forces are trying their best to maintain peace, stability and compliance. Spiritual leaders are stepping up their game, using social media platforms to uplift and inspire. The intelligentsia are running virtual seminars to sustain intellectual discourse. Movies, music and jokes are circulating electronically as we try to suppress or laugh our anxieties away.

Despite the many efforts by leaders in various fields to provide comfort, we continue to be anxious. We remain so because anxiety is intrinsic. And while all the leadership interventions are very necessary and appreciated, no external assurances can completely remove the deep-seated uncertainty and fear of loss.

Beyond the few that are wealthy enough not to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the anxiety broadly evokes two responses. One general response is acceptance, adaptation, empathy, compassion and generosity. In this category, people have sought various safe means to make a difference.  Some have contributed materially by donating money or food.  Some have contributed physically by sharing online exercises and dance classes. Others have contributed intellectually through electronically sharing reading material or arranging webinars and other internet-based platforms of engagement. There are those who reached out psychology by using mobile platforms to check on the welfare of others and by electronically sharing an array of entertainment. And there have been those who contributed spiritually by electronically sharing sermons, prayers, and meditations. 

Regardless of the substance, this group of responses saw people coming to the fore, helping where they can, and sharing what they have.

The other general response is self-preservation. It is characterised by initial denial followed by a clinging to resources, a determination to acquire and hoard even more resources, and inconsideration for the welfare of others. The latter response should be spared judgement, for the ability to love your neighbour is usually preceded by the ability to love yourself. However, this approach might require introspection.  

Altruism might just be the cure for our debilitating anxieties.There is value in appreciating that we share a collective anxiety, as this consciousness could aid in alleviating our own anxieties. The burden of concern for personal welfare lessens as participation in ensuring communal welfare increases. Focusing on creating a better life for all requires planning and this presents some degree of predictability, thereby providing a better sense of the future, and diminishing the scope of the unknown.

Studies have shown that conscious efforts to contribute to the greater good have multiple benefits.  It assists to build confidence and strengthen self-esteem.  Seeing the conditions of others places your own conditions into perspective. Altruism increases social support and aids the development of better communities. It is also said that the act of giving can activate the area in your brain that is associated with positive feelings, thereby reducing personal stress and making one feel better.  

There are few of us who can profess to be devoid of anxieties emanating from the Covid-19 pandemic. These anxieties create an instinctive inward-looking drive. It takes true courage to resist that basic desire to self-preserve and to balance it against the altruism to which we all should aspire. It is a difficult balance to strike, but if we are to survive the pandemic, altruism, displayed in a safe and regulatory compliant manner, will have to become a regular part of how we conduct our lives. This is necessary as altruism presents a solution to our Covid-19 pandemic blues.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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