Can This Be A Turning Point For Global Solidarity?
--Dustin Harber
4 minute read
Mar 24, 2020

[Doctor-poet Sri shared some illuminating remarks during our "Physical Distancing, Social Solidarity" call last week. Below is a transcribed excerpt. From the meta lens of the human condition -- and the "universal suffering that is part of existence" -- to standing in a circle of emergency room doctors, as a chaplain steps forward and invites: "We are ordinary people called to do sacred work," UCSF doctor and Heal Initiative founder, Sriram Shamasunder offers: "Can this pandemic be a turning point of global solidarity? Can this be a turning point for humanity?"]

As this pandemic started in China, as the momentum gets closer to home, the more panic that starts to arise. We saw this with Ebola as well. Pandemics are this great foregrounding of universal suffering that is part of existence. At the end of life, with patients who are suffering, you're dealing with mortality in an individual way; and in this way, it's actually drawing the collective sense of what it is to be mortal, and what it is to suffer, to the front of everyone's mind.

The great novel, The Plague, lays this out in a way that it is one of those inflection points for a lot of people. It may be independent suffering that you're going through -- some of the universal existence that we all face -- but it now becomes collective. ... I was just listening to ICU doctors in Italy. In Northern Italy, 700 beds that they started out with, they now have 900 ICU beds and it's all taken up by covid-19 patients. The level of the ... I think there's one part of the human condition that -- it's hard for us to get out of the immediate and see what human suffering is for us.

I've just started working on the covid-19 service. There's going to be a closed unit on the 15th floor of the hospital. Right now there's only 6 patients that are covid positive, but there's many more that are getting tested daily. Right now, we only have capacity to test 80-100 patients a day. South Korea does 20,000 tests a day. They tested 250,000 patients already.

Yesterday, on my shift, one of the things that was remarkable was that there was a 10AM grounding with all the emergency room doctors and all the emergency room residents. Everybody has mask on. Everyone has a shield on. There's a collective sense of purpose and commitment in the space. In a lot of places where I've worked -- in India and Liberia -- oftentimes, spirituality and religion is brought into the space. I haven't seen it that much in the US in a collective way amongst health professionals. In this setting, we went through all the potential positive patients -- what rooms they were in, what the status was of the three tents out back.

Then, the chaplain stepped forward and he asked everyone to ground themselves. He took this moment where you could feel the energy in the room of purpose and commitment. He said, "We are ordinary people called to do sacred work."

I was looking around the room (because that is not necessarily the first thing I think of when I think of emergency room doctors), but everyone was collectively in this [sacred] space. It was just beautiful to watch.

Really, it's in these pandemics, where we can see -- what is that shift to global solidarity? What is that level of commitment?

In disasters, we know that the collective purpose and the collective sense of solidarity elevates. Can this be a turning point for humanity?

I remember reading about Dorothy Day (the great Catholic social activist) after the 1906 earthquake. She was about 9 years old, and she recalled walking around, and seeing so much compassion and kindness right after the fires in San Francisco. Her entire life of social activism was about trying to recreate that energy, and that spirit of service. I was a first year med student after 9/11, and for about two weeks right after, it felt like everyone had committed to the collective in a really beautiful way. In this pandemic, I think we've started to see that in some ways, small and large. Can this be a turning point of global solidarity? In our work of medical care, we experience it all the time, but oftentimes it's not sustained. This is one of those moments where I wonder: "Can we really experience this shift?"


Posted by Dustin Harber on Mar 24, 2020