Praying for a pandemic of compassion
A Jewish social worker, a Christian ethicist and a Muslim doctor shared their stories of responding to COVID-19 pandemic as part of the 2020 Abraham Conference.
The Uniting Church Synod of NSW/ACT is a partner in the annual event which features speakers from the three Abrahamic traditions on a key contemporary issue. This year the Conference took place online with the theme “Interfaith on the Frontlines”.
First speaker, Renata Ieremias, a social worker with community service provider Jewish Care, reflected that although social workers were not the first profession to spring to mind when thinking about frontline workers, their support has been critical at this time.
“With the onset of COVID-19, our organisation’s 300 committed staff and 500 volunteers, who were not classified as a crisis service, suddenly had to mobilise all resources and respond as if we were one.”
Renata explained that COVID meant more people she was caring for were at a greater risk of financial hardship, homelessness, domestic violence, isolation and mental illness. The elderly, who were among the most vulnerable to the virus, also faced reduced and tightly controlled contact with caregivers.
“Not only did we have to reinvent ourselves as a crisis service, but we had to do this with the added constraints of working from home and replacing face-to-face contact with remote access.”
Renata described it as an unprecedented challenge which required both professional and emotional agility.
Like other frontline workers, social workers had to be mindful of their own self-care and guard against burnout, while keeping the need to support others front of mind.
“How critical is it to support the parents of a loved one who took their own life? Or the child who witnesses his mother constantly being abused by his father? How crucial is it to continue to work with the father to manage his anger? There were so many scenarios where it was obvious we had to continue our support.”
Renata said one insight from COVID was the importance of providing an informal network of care in the community as people became more isolated, and this was an area Jewish Care was heavily investing in.
“The isolation that was a forced consequence of COVID-19 is likely to continue gaining momentum. This will increase the importance of people in immediate circles, like families, in detecting possible deterioration in their loved ones and being responsible in seeking help for them. In a way, these people are becoming our new frontline workers.”
Dr Dan Fleming, Group Manager for Ethics and Formation for St Vincent’s Health Australia spoke about the extraordinarily difficult ethical decisions posed for health professionals in the pandemic.
“Clinicians and ethicists found themselves confronting grave questions we never thought we would have to answer,” said Dan.
Dan recalls at the beginning of the pandemic watching hospitals around the world crippled by the rapid spread of the virus and suddenly faced with questions like, “who should we allocate this ventilator to, and who misses out and on what basis?”
On 19 March 2020 he walked into a meeting at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne where the topic was “the ethical allocation of resources in the pandemic”.
Dan said his team leaned on the organisation’s Catholic ethos and long-held ethical commitments founded in the equal dignity of all people, “for all are created in the image and likeness of God”.
Allocating resources based on arbitrary factors such as age or social worth was never a path St Vincent’s could take, he said. Instead, the organisation devised a rigorous framework for the allocation of resources consistent with its belief that all people have the same sacred dignity.
Another outcome of that meeting was the beginning of a project to provide accommodation and care to rough sleepers to keep them safe from the virus. Within six weeks, a 43-bed facility was set up with the collaboration of other faith-based organisations.
“My reflection on hope in the midst of hardship is a central observation that I think reveals something of the beauty, truth and goodness that our faith traditions bring to a crisis like COVID, precisely because of who we are and how we see the world.”
The third speaker of the Conference Dr Haroon Kasim, a specialist in chronic and complex disease, reflected on how he learnt about empathy as a doctor, to look beyond the illness and to see his patients as human first.
Haroon said that COVID-19 had triggered enormous displays of admirable empathy with the greater understanding that our health is interlinked. However, while many think COVID does not discriminate, Haroon said that, in fact the opposite was true with those with unstable housing, low income or poor education much more likely to be infected and die from the illness.
“This is where our empathy fails and ultimately calls for compassion as the animating force behind thinking about health,” said Haroon.
“Compassion builds on empathy. It does not motivate us because we too may be harmed, compassion motivates action because the phenomena we observe are unjust and not worthy of a world we would like to live in.”
“Today I ask, could we use the uncertainty and hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic to push us to structure a better world, not because we suffer but because others suffer?”
“Could we use our religion and its emphasis on compassion to help us relate and understand each other better and to create a pandemic of compassion to enable a world that’s diverse, inclusive and beautiful for our children.”
The Abraham Conference is a partnership of Affinity Intercultural Foundation, the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of NSW & ACT, Australia Muslim Times (AMUST), the Diocese of Parramatta, the NSW Ecumenical Council, the Australian Egyptian Forum Council and the Indian Crescent Society of Australia.
Photo: Dr Haroon Kasim
WATCH THE FULL CONFERENCE BELOW