The Arithmetic of Compassion in Times of COVID-19: What Can We Do?

In Part 2 of 2, an Adventist scholar discusses how to thrive in our new reality.

Carlos Fayard, for Inter-American Division News
The Arithmetic of Compassion in Times of COVID-19: What Can We Do?

The World Health Organization recommends key strategies that may be helpful to consider as we, as a church, try to communicate with our members and communities.1 Pastors and other leaders might include some of this information in their sermons and webinars.

1. Understand people. My inclination is to feel indignant toward those who are not wearing masks in public. Of course, it does not do any good to feel this way, and in fact, you might have seen how this may lead to altercations. These individuals truly believe their conduct to be appropriate. If we are going to make any progress, we need to identify the barriers that affect people’s ability or willingness to engage in mitigating behaviors. For instance, a powerful driver of these behaviors where I live is based in unfounded beliefs about the virus as being “fake” and a way to “control” people. And now, with the vaccine, it is “a way to manipulate” your genetic code. If we feel contempt for this misinformation, it is not helpful. You may find a way to convey evidence-based information that may address these beliefs tactfully and directly. 

2. Engage people as part of the solution. Prioritize and highlight in your mind how many people are following protective behaviors instead of focusing primarily on those who do not. By shifting the focus in this way, you may contribute to generating a feeling of self-efficacy — a sense that “what you do makes a difference.”

3. Acknowledge and address the hardship people experience. It is well documented that restrictions and intrusive measures from the pandemic have had a negative impact on the emotional health of many. Surveys indicate that a good portion of the population sees the loss of a job or income as a higher and more immediate threat than the virus itself. “Under such circumstances, it is not a small request to ask for continued population support.”2 If you are preaching, teaching, or doing a webinar, consider the following:

  • Acknowledge the hardships that people face or fear, such as loneliness or loss of income. Empathy, hope, and understanding above punishment, shame, and blame are more likely to open minds and hearts.
  • Highlight ways in which people may retain as much of their lives as possible while taking into account the epidemiological risk.
  • Create opportunities for people to feel connected and, if possible, productive. One of the churches I follow on Facebook has a most creative array of streamed services, from children’s worship events to prayer and regular church meetings. A pastor who serves in a hard-hit area told me a few days ago that he is planning to hold “open conversation” meetings regularly to facilitate constructive connections.
  • Avoid an economy-versus-health dichotomy.

4. Take a harm-reduction approach. This is a term psychologists use to acknowledge that negative behaviors may not be stopped completely but that reducing harm is more feasible. Presenting people with an “all or nothing” approach clearly backfires. Early in the pandemic, my wife and I went for rides in the mountains around our area. The state of California had decided to close all parks and recreation areas. The net result was that crowds of people congregated in areas ill-designed to welcome the numbers or activities. Highlighting what can be done safely is bound to be more helpful than just repeating what we should not be doing, even if what is repeated are the protective behaviors.

Let us now turn to what you may consider as an individual to address some of the concerns stemming from pandemic fatigue. Psychologist Paul Slovic recommends the following:2

1. Become aware of psychic numbing/pandemic fatigue/compassion fatigue in yourself. You may decrease the impact of psychic numbing by becoming aware of how you respond when you hear a statistic or are shown images related to the pandemic on TV. If you feel that makes you a little numb, you may want to imagine how it is to be in the shoes of one person represented in the statistic or picture. The person has a name, a family, and a history.

2. Raise awareness in others.You may use your social media to discuss psychic numbing/pandemic fatigue/compassion fatigue, highlighting the ideas and strategies discussed above. You want to increase empathy instead of simply venting frustration. Re-posting this article or portions of it might be helpful.

3. Harness the power of a testimony.The pastor who plans on holding open conversation times for his community is also planning on including the personal testimony of those that have faced the various aspects of dealing with COVID-19 — both survivors of the disease and survivors of those who lost loved ones to the virus. Personal stories can be compelling. My wife and I are planning on doing a short video in Spanish to share. She is a professor of pediatrics at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and just got her second vaccine shot. Explaining the mechanisms of the virus, and even more important, how the vaccine works, may help some.

4. Appreciate that even partial solutions save whole lives. The message is clear. Helping one person at a time helps to save many, if not all.

A Christian Response

It is interesting to note that when faced with large numbers of people in need, Jesus had a response that was the opposite of psychic numbing. The Gospel of Mathew (9:35, 36) describes that “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (NIV).

Jesus was not invaded by a false sense of inefficacy given the numbers and the size of the needs. The Gospel of Matthew (18:10-13) quotes Christ’s words directly: “See that you don’t look down on one of these little ones, because I tell you that in heaven their angels continually view the face of My Father in heaven…. What do you think? If a man has 100 sheep, and one of them goes astray, won’t he leave the 99 on the hillside and go and search for the stray? And if he finds it, I assure you: He rejoices over that sheep more than over the 99 that did not go astray” (HCSB).

Christ was not under the impact of the prominence effect. On the contrary, the Gospel of Matthew (20:28) states that He came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (NIV).

As a Christian, I am sure that on your best days, you want to be like Jesus. Being like Jesus goes beyond the question, “What would Jesus do?” Being like Jesus means that your behavior is motivated by compassion. The secular world recognizes the importance of motivation under our global crisis. As a follower of Jesus, compassion that is being moved to action when we see suffering is a fruit of the Spirit’s presence in your life. You, too, may find the motivation to deal with pandemic fatigue in your life and in that of those around you and respond, keeping in mind some of the ideas shared above.

If you are Christian, like the rest of us, you know that you are only human and far from perfect. At times, you too may feel “helpless, like [a] sheep without a shepherd.” If so, bring to mind the words of Psalm 23 (with my observations in parenthesis):

The Lord is my shepherd. (A shepherd is there to protect. The shepherd may not physically hold the sheep but is alert to any threats and remains attentive to the needs of the flock). 

He gives me everything I need (and not necessarily all I want).

He lets me lie down in fields of green grass.

He leads me beside quiet waters.

He gives me new strength.

He guides me in the right paths for the honor of his name. (He walks with me when all is well, but this is when I tend to be more forgetful.)

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid.

You are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff comfort me. (Yes, He is with me even when I feel I am in the darkest moments of my life.)

You prepare a feast for me right in front of my enemies. (He protects me but does not always eliminate difficulties.)

You pour oil on my head. My cup runs over. (I remember the times when I felt His blessing in my life.)

I am sure that your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.

And I will live in the house of the Lord forever. (We have this hope! The pandemic is not the end of this planet’s history or the end of our personal history).

May you be blessed and invigorated, welcoming the Spirit to produce a fruit of compassion through these trying times.

Part 1 of this commentary is available here. The original version of this second commentary was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.


1. World Health Organization (WHO), Regional Office for Europe, “Pandemic Fatigue: Reinvigorating the Public to Prevent COVID-19” (Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 2020).

2. WHO, “Pandemic Fatigue: Reinvigorating the Public to Prevent COVID-19,” 19.

2. Delia O’Hara, “Paul Slovic Observes the ‘Psychic Numbing’ of COVID-19.” American Psychological Association, Nov. 30, 2020,

Carlos Fayard, for Inter-American Division News