Even while I was working with refugees and displaced persons, those who have suffered under repressive regimes and fled war zones, I never felt that I could truly empathize with their experiences.
Something in me understood that what they had experienced was profoundly traumatic, and I sympathized deeply with that, but I could never really, truly put myself in their shoes.
But over the past few weeks, COVID-19 has given us Westerners a small taste of what it might be like—a narrow window of insight into what people from other countries go through. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not about to start spouting “We are at war against an invisible enemy” rhetoric. Pandemics and war are two very different things.
My point is instead that the former can give us some perspective on the latter.
We now know what it’s like when it’s dangerous to leave our homes. We know how it feels when danger could be anywhere, at any time. And how it feels to be in fear of a danger that has nothing to do with us. We now know what it’s like when that danger follows us, and our friends and family are at risk simply by visiting them.
We now know what it’s like to have our movement restricted. As borders close within and between countries, we have had to make choices about who to live with and who to leave behind. And we’ve made those choices not knowing when we will be able to see our loved ones again. Or maybe we’ve not had a choice at all.
We now know what it’s like when we can’t trust our government to keep us safe. Indeed, when we can’t even trust that our government is telling the truth.
We now know what it’s like when we can’t receive the medical treatment we need because there aren’t enough doctors or medical equipment to save our life.
We now know what it’s like when nurses and doctors are risking their lives on the frontline to save others. We now know what it’s like when it’s unsafe to leave our house without certain body parts covered. We now know what it’s like when we can’t get basic food and necessities—to try and live while we are surrounded by rumors of pending food shortages and economic collapse.
And we now know what it’s like when masses of the population are put out of work in a matter of weeks due to massive forces beyond anyone’s control.
Maybe, knowing all of this, the next time we hear stories of refugees—of people who cannot go home, people who are separated indefinitely from their loved ones, people who are persecuted by their governments, people who cannot feed their families or access lifesaving medical treatment—we will meet those stories with a little more empathy, a little more insight and a bit more compassion.
Maybe we will think back to the time when we, too, had to make difficult decisions or labored under crippling restrictions. Perhaps we will know that all of us, no matter our country, ethnicity, or religion, are vulnerable.