The coronavirus pandemic has seen terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ quickly become a part of our day-to-day vocabulary.  People are experiencing restrictions on their freedom to travel around and engage with organised activities, many of them for the first time, and it’s safe to say they haven’t held back in making their fears and frustrations known. Here, chronically ill writer and blogger Pippa tells us why empathy could be the positive outcome we all need from such an unsettling situation.    

Recent events have seen people’s routines and daily life change in an instant, and the chronic illness community has looked on with equal parts amusement and disbelief. For non-disabled people, the idea of being confined within the walls of their own home for more than seven days is unthinkable. For many chronically ill people, such confinement is compulsory to their way of life.

The coronavirus outbreak has seen non-disabled people begin to experience just some of the barriers that people with long-term conditions face on a daily basis. They’re being forced to take excessive precautions over their personal hygiene, closely consider the benefits and costs of socialising and planning outings and are experiencing the dismay of having to withdraw from events and activities they’d been looking forward to.

Dismissing disabled people

As many disabled voices have rightly highlighted, it shouldn’t have to take a pandemic of this kind to draw the nation’s attention to such barriers. We shouldn’t have had to wait this long for remote working opportunities, community support for vulnerable people, and tips for coping with being housebound to be implemented, when such a significant proportion of the population has been facing these battles, and campaigning for change, for years. The fact that support for these things is only now beginning to emerge simply adds weight to the notion that disabled and chronically ill people are a notoriously undervalued part of our society, and it’s incredibly difficult not to take that fact to heart.

As somebody whose entire way of life is affected by chronic illness, I too found myself disheartened by how events have played out. The whole situation has made the past lack of support and acknowledgement so many of us have experienced almost seem like a personal attack. To have your needs dismissed by those in positions of authority so readily in the past, only to be accommodated at the drop of a hat once non-disabled people began to express the very same grievances, is tough. I too have leaned toward the anger and injustice currently being felt so deeply by the disabled community.

Aligning with allies 

The other night, however, I spotted something online that caused me to stop, confront these negative emotions I was experiencing, and observe them in a new light. Public theologian and author Nadia Bolz-Weber had previously shared a tweet discussing the grief and disappointment the general population would likely have to face, on top of sickness, as a result of contracting the coronavirus. However, it wasn’t this particular tweet that initially sparked my interest, but one which had quoted it and prefaced it with its own thoughts. Rather, the tweet in question emerged from a somewhat-unexpected ally… national treasure Miranda Hart.

Miranda used her platform to draw attention to the fact that the challenges being described in Bolz-Weber’s tweet were simply a way of life for people with chronic illnesses. She highlighted the parallels between this new situation non-disabled people could potentially be facing, and the ‘daily grief’ that’s a staple part of life for those with long-term conditions. Most notably of all, instead of initiating direct comparison, she instead encouraged people to try and understand some of these challenges, implying that they should put themselves in the shoes of others.

Shortly after, Miranda also took to Instagram to elaborate further. Cementing her position as an ally, in her caption she encouraged people with conditions including ME, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), fibromyalgia and many more to make this ‘a time we can make you feel heard and understood’, offering her sincere apologies for the fact that ‘you are so misunderstood and unrecognised in what you go through’.

Feeling validated

Both posts were met with an outpouring of love and support from the chronic illness community, with individuals feeling that their situation had been validated. People were quick to respond with comments sharing their own stories and experiences, expressing their frustrations with the lack of awareness so many have had to contend with, but showing only gratitude to Miranda for using her platform to facilitate these important discussions.

For me, observing these posts and the reaction to them marked a subtle change in my own mindset. Although the frustrations that disabled people have expressed are completely valid and justified, I began to consider a previously unrecognised side to this whole situation: could this pandemic inadvertently be the thing that finally opens the eyes of non-disabled people and encourages them too to be an ally? Could their stepping into our shoes, albeit briefly and by no means to the same extent, cause them to think more deeply about the unrelenting battles of life with chronic illness? Once the pandemic is under control, hopefully sooner rather than later, could we even be left with a more empathetic and inclusive society?

Insight and understanding

There is no justification for the fear, devastation and grief that the coronavirus has already brought to so many families, and nothing that can take the magnitude of their losses away. However, after seeing Miranda’s tweet and the breath of fresh air it brought to the community, I’m beginning to tentatively hope that all this heartbreak could eventually count for something bigger.

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic of this scale for our society to reach this point, but perhaps it’s giving us an opportunity to harness these experiences and help them evolve into insight; encouraging the non-disabled population to become more mindful of the lives of people like me. After all, a pandemic of empathy could be exactly what the world needs right now.

Read more of Pippa’s writing on her blog, Life Of Pippa, and say hello on Instagram. You can also find Spoonie Survival Kits, a fundraising social enterprise making little bags of happiness, on this page.