March 25

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Altruism Is the Bright Light in the Midst of a Pandemic

"Animals have genes for altruism, and those genes have been selected in the evolution of many creatures because of the advantage they confer for the continuing survival of the species." —Lewis Thomas

I never thought I would experience a pandemic in my lifetime.

Perhaps I’m too optimistic.

But here’s another thing I never thought I would experience: a much deeper sense of connection to others in the midst of said pandemic.

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic.

It’s just that I didn’t expect that a pandemic would provide relief from some of the stresses that our hyper-individualized, hyper-capitalized society places on us.

I didn’t expect that a pandemic would be able to bring out some of the very best in humanity (while simultaneously being one of the scariest things that has happened to it in a while).

In short, I didn’t expect that a pandemic would make altruism great again.

In this article, I’d like to explain how responses to the pandemic are showing altruism on the global level (1.), on the human level (2.), and on the business level (3.).

1. This pandemic shows altruism on the global level.

This pandemic has been compared to war.

And, some aspects of it are quite war-like: countries barricading themselves in, instances of increased racism and xenophobia, and a restriction of international movement.

However, this pandemic is also very much unlike war, which could be described as a conflict between two or more parties.

Here’s why: countries that have barricaded themselves in have done it not just for themselves. They’ve also done it for their neighboring states and, ultimately, for all of humanity.

China’s partial and Italy’s complete lockdown (as well as subsequent ones in other countries) were altruistic. They weren’t only altruistically motivated but they had an altruistic component to it.

As the head of the WHO delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, put it when addressing the people of Wuhan:

“The world is in your debt.”

Sacrifices that were made by people in Coronavirus hotspots have protected countless people in other places and other countries.

That’s the exact opposite of war.

Taking action to keep a virus from spreading to others is altruism. It’s not only altruism for people one knows, but it’s also altruism for the stranger, “the other,” a human one has never met.

That’s something we’d expect — based on countless Hollywood movies— from an alien invasion. Faced with an outside threat, we’d expect humanity to band together across all borders, set aside its differences and strive towards a common goal.

Turns out that’s what’s happening in a pandemic, too.

Coronavirus is not a war — it’s a turning point.

2. This pandemic shows altruism on the human level.

The same thing is happening on a smaller level, too.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me that they are in voluntary self-quarantine. Since they haven’t had a chance to get tested for Coronavirus, they decided that they’d rather quarantine themselves than risk getting anyone else sick.

If that’s not altruism, I don’t know what is.

Interestingly, altruism seems to be a very effective motivator for taking preventive actions.

For instance, a study about proper handwashing hygiene for doctors and nurses compared the effectiveness of appeals to altruism (“Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases”) and appeals to their self-interest (“Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”).

The results? The handwashing hygiene of health care workers increased significantly when they were reminded of patient safety but not when they were reminded of personal safety.

The effectiveness of altruistic messages is certainly something to keep in mind when talking to others about preventive measures.

3. This pandemic shows altruism on the business level.

I have also experienced an outpouring of altruism in my email inbox. In fact, it seems like this pandemic has turned our economy into a gift economy.

It’s hard to keep track of all the emails from online businesses that say “here, please take all my stuff…for free.”

Of course, some of these offers are not altruistically motivated at all. However, I find that it’s typically easy to tell when a referenced concern for others is just a marketing ploy, and when it’s coming from a genuine desire to be of service.

And a lot of the emails I’ve received seem to come from people who really, really want to help.

I have noticed the same tendency within me. A lot of the regular rules of business seem to have gone out of the window — and it feels wonderful.

Whereas I typically like to take the weekend off from work (business owners should have some work-life balance, after all), this weekend I found myself more than happy to be available for clients who needed it.

Whereas I typically find it important to have solid pricing in place (business owners have to make a living, after all), this week I have spent more time thinking about what I could offer to people for free than about other things.

I presume the same is true for many other people.

It’s strangely liberating to not have to worry about whether something makes sense from a business perspective or not, and to just follow one’s natural impulse to be of service.

It’s also uplifting to see ethical and caring forms of marketing thrive. In times of crisis, people need more help than usual and businesses can give it to them. To me, it seems that in times of crisis, compassionate and caring marketing is suddenly more effective than manipulative one— and I, for one, find that wonderful.

In a few short months, COVID-19 has cast darkness upon the world and turned it upside down. People everywhere are struggling with the challenges it has brought upon us.

At the same time, humanity’s innate altruism has ignited a light that could turn humanity into a better direction than ever before.

If we really, truly, learn our lesson, this new age of altruism doesn’t have to end whenever this pandemic comes to an end.

And wouldn’t that be worth celebrating?

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