By Gary Goldsand, Ethicist, Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS)
(Reprinted from the June 2020 edition of the CHAS Communique)
As a health ethicist practicing in Edmonton during the pandemic scares of 2003 and 2009, I have spent substantial time considering the unique ethical issues that a pandemic might raise: How shall we prioritize patients competing for care? How shall we organize clinical professionals to meet huge demands without endangering them unreasonably?
As the middle of March approached, the enormous scale of this pandemic was beginning to come into focus, and once-hypothetical catastrophic scenarios became reality in Italy and New York. At work, I observed a simultaneous rise of both compassion, deep concern for the sufferings of others, and fear, the harsh realization that this virus is likely on its way here in the near future. How bad might it be?
It would be another two weeks before my rising sense of fear began to subside, mainly as a result of seeing that intensive care units in New York had not been overwhelmed, despite shockingly high numbers. With some reduction in fear, my naturally optimistic self began to explore all of the potentially “brighter sides” of our situation.
There are many brighter sides to contemplate at such a time. It appears this virus is only “mildly lethal,” compared to what one can imagine. It appears that our governments and large institutions are, at least, somewhat capable of cooperative responses to new threats. Scientists and health professionals are also able to embrace drastic changes to their working lives and collaborate in fighting a public health threat.
I am confident this pandemic will inspire us to be far more serious about the planning we do for the next one or the next phase of this one. These are all gifts, in a relative sense. They are opportunities to build community.
The lesson that has been reverberating in my mind most over recent weeks originates in a small phrase from CHAC’s Health Ethics Guide, which reads, “Healing occurs best when people experience that they belong to communities of compassion.”
The pandemic has reinforced for me that patients, care providers, and most citizens belong to a variety of communities that give them support and enable them to trust others. With trust and comfort come the transmission of compassion, which is the core idea that has been able to thrive in these recent weeks.
The impulse to selfishness, so well embodied early on by the mass hoarding of toilet paper, has given way to what I think is a deeper impulse – to care for each other with compassion. Even at great economic expense.
The upcoming weeks will hopefully see a flowering of compassion in our health system, as we figure out how to strengthen the communities that thrive in our long term care centres. Compassion demands that we not only keep our beloved seniors safe, but find ways to ensure that each of them gets the experience of mingling with community, as the weeks go on.
Compassion compels us to do everything possible to see that dying patients and long-term residents can safely enjoy the company of loved ones.
Witnessing compassion suggests to me that we humans are all deeply attracted to the ideals of justice, and leaves me a bit more optimistic that in the wake of this crisis, we’ll create a health care system that is more attentive to the social needs of clinicians and patients, who all benefit when they interact with a deep sense of shared community.
If you are interested in learning about the work of CHAS or would like to become a member, please contact Blake Sittler at email@example.com or (306) 270-5452.