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Helping in the ‘age of pandemics’

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

What makes us more willing to help? Are we now more able to appreciate the work of volunteers and medics? Will the changes we have seen in society during the fight against coronavirus be permanent? We interviewed Joanna Gutral, a Psychology MA, psychotherapist, and psycho-educator from the "Zdrowa Głowa" portal and SWPS University.

Wiktoria Podhorska-Piotrowska: Why do we want to help in general? Is it in our blood?

Joanna Gutral:- There are many reasons for this. First, we help because it works a little bit like mutuality principle. We believe that if we do so, we can expect the same if we find ourselves in a similar situation. Secondly, we are more willing to get involved in collections or other forms of aid that are important to us personally. By the way, we find it hard to bear the sight of others suffering, because we are driven by a strong sense of justice. It is simply difficult to be unmoved to people’s misery.

So it is not by chance that we choose the specific target of the aid, isn’t it?

- That's right. There are studies showing that people who have struggled with a similar disorder or health difficulty are more likely to get involved in collections dedicated to treating a similar condition. So, common experiences and values unite us.

For a person who has a lot of empathy for animals, their welfare will be one of the values that such a person follows in life. People want to support actions that are personally important to them, because it creates a feeling of empowerment. Then we have some control over the situation. We have the power to influence things or issues that really matter, and therefore are very significant to our well-being.

So have our priorities, the values that are important to us, changed in any way under the impact of the pandemic?

- Well certainly in the age of pandemics, a sense of community has become apparent.

Sense of empowerment and community, as well as autonomy, are basic dimensions of social perception, and we like to be proactive precisely to have a sense of control or influence over a situation. We also act communally, that is, we identify with certain groups, experiences, and when something difficult happens that affects everyone, such as a pandemic, this makes us all the keener to act for the benefit of the local community.


- I think this is also a situation in which many people really need this help. In most cases we know them by sight, from our neighbourhood, from our small community. There are also various kinds of collections which support, for example, small cafes that are part of our everyday landscape. We are more involved in this form of helping because it is something we are directly familiar with. If we see an Internet collection for a cause unknown to us personally, and we have no individual connection to it, we act differently than if our café, which we like and to which we always go for coffee, is on the verge of bankruptcy. In such a situation we, too, are at risk of personal loss. If I don't take matters into my own hands, this café will shut down.

I feel that people's attitude towards volunteers has also changed, especially the medics. We always knew that they were doing a great job, but only now have we started to show them unconditional gratitude.

- We saw the heroic work of the medics and noticed the fact that we depend on them. We realised that they are on the front line of the fight against the virus. We also know that if they ‘fall in the battle’, we all are in trouble. And without them, society will not be able to survive.

Similar acts of gratitude happen in the face of other tragedies. When, for example, firefighters have been our rescuers, then we feel a special affection towards them. Here, a similar thing happens in relation to medics because they play the most important role in the case of the fight against a pandemic.

But are we able to support them in any way?

- An extra pair of hands make the job that much easier, but we don't all have medical training. Instead, we can provide various other forms of help. A good example were the restaurants that delivered free meals to hospitals. One expression of support in Poland was also the action of going out on the balcony and applauding the paramedics. People tend to look for solutions and support even in seemingly hopeless situations. In difficult moments for medics, I would not be able to put on a doctor's gown and go to the hospital to help them, because I have no medical training. I could sit at home and break down, saying, "I can't do anything!" and that would significantly lower my well-being, my mood. I would lose my sense of empowerment.

What can be done to avoid losing this feeling?

- You must take some action. For example, get involved, order a meal for the medics, take part in a collection. It will be an expression of gratitude to those fighting on the front line, a token of public support.

What will happen when the pandemic is over for good? Will it all be forgotten quickly? Or will the motivation to continue helping people remain?

- We tend to provide support usually when something is already happening. In fact, help is needed when there is a threat. And when that risk is less, we focus more on our lives, on our resources. Some activist types or social activists more often engage in various types of volunteering as a form of building a network of support and ties, a sense of empowerment and concern for their well-being. In my opinion, such people will continue to follow their own paths by volunteering. However, I think that most of us will focus on our personal areas or smaller fields. We will think about whether I and my surroundings have been affected by the pandemic and how to rebuild it.

I also think that after the pandemic there will be a time of relief and we will focus on enjoying what has been taken away from us for a long time, rather than de facto concentrating on these aid-related incentives.

But will we appreciate more the things and values that seemed a certainty and suddenly disappeared?

- It is worth cultivating gratitude within ourselves. This practice of consciously focusing on what I am grateful for is good for our well-being. If I concentrate my attention on the fact that thanks to medics I can now walk without a mask, enjoy the various privileges, it will even lower my blood pressure and strengthen my immune system. If we practice this gratitude, it will not only be good for ourselves, but also for our relationships, for how we see the world, how we perceive other people's work. I think a pandemic can be a valuable life lesson to draw crucial conclusions.

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