Beware the spectre of pandemic guilt trips

Empathy is vital

08 November 2021 - 08:36
By Nombuso Kumalo
Sharing moments of happiness and joy for another helps dealing with emotional health.
Image: 123RF Sharing moments of happiness and joy for another helps dealing with emotional health.

Manoeuvring the Covid-19 pandemic and its after-effects has been hard and devastating for many. However, there have also been various opportunities and a bit of silver lining for some. Unfortunately, being spared the pain and hardship when everyone around you seems to be getting a double dose of it may give rise to feelings of guilt.

Clinical Psychologist and host of the You’re Okay mental health YouTube channel, Dr Ziyanda Mavumengwana, says this kind of guilt is of privilege more than ones related to the pandemic.  

“Guilt is a normal response when we see others suffering and we feel as though we have somewhat been excused from what the main group is experiencing,” says Mavumengwana.

According to Mavumengwana, feeling bad for someone is a sign of emotional health. However, she cautions that it may become a problem when it interferes with one’s wellbeing. “When guilt hinders us from expressing the gifts that we have or from displaying our competence then it becomes a problem.”

Our response to guilt of privilege is rooted in our cultural paideia to belong and commune with one another which at most times, more especially within the black community, is over scarcity and loss.

“We always want to belong to our own group by sharing whatever attribute is commonly shared. If wealth was commonly shared, we would feel okay displaying it – but because it’s not a common thing, it has a sense of othering,” Mavumengwana says.

“So, when you appear to have those things that others don’t, you can start feeling as though you are not like your own people.”

It was not all bad news that were brought forward by the pandemic with many people seizing the moment to start up their enterprises. According to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC), the record number of 510,000 companies were registered in 2020 which translates to a 32% increase from the previous year.

Managing partner and co-founder of Marula Cleaning Solutions, Lehlohonolo Khala, began the operations of his domestic and commercial cleaning service during the lockdown when he recognised how vital sanitised and clean spaces would become.

“When we were faced with the pandemic last year we saw the urgent need for a healthy and clean environment. We then decided to use the business as a means to tackle the demand. Covid-19 pandemic gave me the necessary courage to push the business,” he says.

Khala admits that he did experience pandemic guilt more especially because no one within his immediate family succumbed to the virus. “I got to see a lot of people experience the pandemic guilt, mostly during the lockdown adjusted level five last year. I thank God that my family and I did not experience the devastating impact of the virus,” he says.

Mavumengwana says that we should not shame individuals who still have jobs and are financially well off  as many of them worked hard to buffer the effects of the pandemic. “If you have been putting money aside for many years we can’t guilt trip you for having money during the pandemic. We can’t be mad that you have a job because usually those people worked hard to get those positions,” she says.

“The one thing that is common to humans are periods of adversity. Just because I didn’t lose anything in this crisis it doesn’t mean I don’t relate to loss or that I am immune from it. There is a balance of joy and adversity in life – it’s part of the human experience, and it is going to happen to all of us,” she says.

Mavumengwana further believes that more than guilt, this season of the pandemic should be the birthplace for empathy and human connection. “When our time to express an adversity comes we would want it to be sunshine in someone else’s world. If they have the capacity to help someone who is going through it. We don’t all want to not have resources; otherwise who is going to pull who through out of a bad place,” she says.

Khala says that when he is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt he is reminded of why he started to resist the urge for comparison. “Asking myself why I started helps me question my mission and where I am. As well as to be realistic about my goals by understanding that no two people are the same,” he says

“Some techniques to minimise guilt is to participate in the experience that another person is going through and to have compassion for yourself by eliminating comparative suffering”, says Mavumengwana.