Covid-19 has changed our world in ways that we could never have imagined, and in doing so has revealed many anomalies that have challenged us. In our 24/7 world, the brakes have been slammed, a stop button has been pressed, re-focussing our gaze and bringing all attention to rest on how we live during and through this pandemic. Meanwhile, the flaws in our systems are being laid bare as we struggle to find answers to the problems confronting our overstretched and under-resourced NHS, staggering under the weight of cases. 

Amidst this we see an outpouring of compassionate responses by people: neighbours doing each other’s shopping, donations made to charities, volunteers enlisted to help and support the NHS. Suddenly, we are reminded of what really matters, what our priorities are in the face of adversity when there is a direct threat to life. 

A lot of people have expressed surprise at these individual responses of kindness and compassion. What does this say about the kind of society we believe we are? The collective care we have seen in every part of the country stands in sharp contradiction to what we have been taught about the priorities of our fellow citizens. Throughout the generations and perpetuated by media, culture, rites of passage, educational institutions and social norms, our society has applauded social status, the acquisition of wealth, academic prowess and materialism, which serve as the trophies and signifiers for having “made it”. Herein lies the offer of safety, security and means to thrive for those selected by this system. 

But there are also people for whom compassionate responses to crises are no surprise at all. People who have been practising collective care as a matter of survival for generations. Peering through the cracks, we meet those for whom the system offers no safety, no scaffolding and no covering. They have grown used to being viewed in no other way than as a problem, a drain on society, as the “deserving poor”, stamped with labels such as “immigrants”, “social misfits”, “criminals”, “low achievers”. These same people are now overrepresented among the key workers putting their lives at risk to look after those of us who are sick, to keep our hospitals and our streets clean, our transport system running, to care for our children and elderly, to deliver our food and to keep our public institutions open. And many of them are falling through the cracks of the government’s covid-19 support system.

Covid-19 has temporarily repositioned those considered to be key workers as our heroes and community champions. And while we applaud our NHS workers as we appreciate their contribution in this crisis, can we also ask why it has taken a global pandemic to open our eyes and ears to the value of our fellow human beings, to see others as we see ourselves?

There is a parallel narrative here that isn’t getting much attention. Many key workers who are migrants are deemed as “low-skilled” and will not be able to apply for UK work visas under the government’s post-Brexit immigration system. What does compassion look like for them? Can claps mitigate for the lack of personal protective equipment, low wages, inadequate employment rights, or a deeply discriminatory immigration system?

Under conditions of stress, confusion and disorientation, we are all desperate for a silver lining. Our media and institutions are equally quick to cover up the cracks in the system that are being exposed in an effort to make everything go back to “business as usual” as soon as possible. 

What we at Common Cause have been calling the Compassion Narrative is one we’ve seen all over the internet. It’s vital to share stories of collective care and kindness in this difficult time. And this is not where it stops. If we are to grow from this, let us ask questions about what we see through the cracks. Questions such as:

  • Whose contribution is deemed valuable in our society?
  • Who is seen as deserving of compassion?
  • Whose life is deemed worth saving?
  • Who is impacted the most by this pandemic?
  • Who has the most protection?
  • And, after reflecting on the above, what does compassion look like?