Since Singapore began experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in early April, it has been in the global spotlight for the wrong reasons. Once hailed as the gold standard of virus containment measures, it is now at the center of a flurry of criticism on international media outlets, most notably of its failure to prevent outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories and its subsequent management of these clusters, and the seeming invasiveness of its policies.
Singaporeans are themselves caught up in spirited discussions about how the fight against the virus has affected their rights, obligations, and global reputation (some with good-natured humor). However, beneath these heated debates about politics and principle, something important is at work: a flurry of community-based activity to protect those bearing the brunt of the crisis.
Reservoirs of Empathy
Current exigencies have nudged Singapore into taking significant compassionate action. People have rallied behind local businesses, trying to figure out the most effective ways of keeping them afloat. A group of undergraduate students set up free online tutoring support to help underprivileged students adapt to home-based learning measures. Donors contributed used laptops and accessories, as well as the knowledge required to fix them up, to students who didn’t have them. Within days of the first reports about virus outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories in early April, initiatives to aid these workers–collated in a public Google Sheets document–received overwhelming ground-up support. A medical school graduate set up a website that translates vital medical information from English to Bengali, a significant language among migrant workers. As this local writer pointed out in response to The New York Times’ display of Singapore’s “dark side,” unpleasant neighborhood vigilantism is balanced out by the generosities mentioned above.
The readiness with which many Singaporeans have sought out responsible means of offering help demonstrates that there is a reservoir of empathy running through society. Many ordinary people, not just those already involved in charitable work, moved to make their own difference. They also came to recognize that the seemingly humblest of jobs are essential and dignified. A much broader swathe of society than before is imagining lives different from their own, and coming to respect and care about those lives in the process.
Singapore is not alone in experiencing this mass exercise in empathetic imagination. Communities everywhere else are pulling together to see the pandemic through, and not just on local scales. American consumers and their global counterparts have grown sharply aware of the need for increased safety measures and pay raises for Amazon, Walmart, and Uber employees. An Irish GoFundMe page raised over $4 million for the Navajo and Hopi nations, which have been especially hard-hit by the virus. “More people than ever in the past,” remarks Wang Gungwu, an eminent scholar, “are knowledgeable about the fate of others, and we now see countless examples of people caring for others across borders and over long distances.” The challenge Singapore faces, then, is the same as that which confronts societies around the world.
The World Needs to Turn Empathy into a Habit
The task is twofold. Firstly, we (in the most generic sense) need to encode compassion into everyday behavior. We need to turn empathy into a culture, a habit. Without such conditioning, empathy fatigue becomes a real danger. As disruptions to normalcy drag on, and news fatigue sets in around the world, people run the risk of growing desensitized to the needs of those worst hit. The well-intentioned can be worn down by a constant sense of siege. If reservoirs of empathy dry up, current outpours of goodwill, however heartfelt at the moment, will simply have been an attempt to assuage the collective guilt that comes with the exposure of apathy.
Secondly, we need to detach our compassion from our sense of crisis. Empathetic action must outlive the pandemic to become the norm. This means giving and volunteering even after the pandemic is over. Vulnerable groups will not magically grow impervious to the challenges they have long faced. In fact, structural problems such as inequality are only getting worse. Low-income workers suffer disproportionately from the crisis, and many more are about to join their ranks. A Singapore study illustrates that the transition to online learning will widen developmental gaps among students of differing socio-economic backgrounds. Thus, instead of assuming that charitable networks will be dismantled post-pandemic, societies worldwide should explore how they can be sustained and expanded. The translation website for migrant workers in Singapore, for example, can look into facilitating communication in other settings. We should keep in touch with those we have helped, and from whom we have learned. We should continue to support delivery workers and cleaners who made social distancing possible.
Leaders of Change
The leaders of such a change have already emerged. The public looks to non-profit organization leaders as guides to understand who needs help and how to help them. Now, these activists’ advocacy for a more compassionate, inclusive society is reaching a larger audience than ever. Migrant workers are “part of our common humanity,” reiterated six Singapore migrant labor rights activists during a recent webinar that drew over a thousand live participants. (They also emphasized that the everyday Singaporean stay committed to the cause “beyond COVID.”)
Additionally, now as in the future, educators–particularly those in the humanities–must emphasize the importance of empathetic imagination to the next generation of citizens. It is, after all, the core of literature and history. If students can imagine fictional lives, or lives lived in times far removed from their own, surely they can spare some imagination for real people living in the present.
Not everyone can rewrite policies, patch up legal loopholes, or oversee large-scale operations. But we would do well to remember that politics and policies must be backed by a fundamental willingness on the part of every individual to draw others into his or her circle of moral responsibility. As a local scholar has recently observed, the success of progressive reforms of low-wage sectors depends greatly on “the degree of solidarity that Singaporeans feel for fellow members of society.” Empathetic imagination is not a flimsy intellectual luxury. It is the fuel of real change.
Ensuring that the current wave of empathy decisively transforms society for the better is not exclusive to any profession, to any point on the political spectrum, or to any nation. The duty to empathize rests with all of us.
Jennifer Yip is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the influence of logistics on the strategic outcome and everyday experiences of war. She completed a Master of Philosophy in World History at the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in History at the National University of Singapore.