Empathy’s evolutionary limitations
The marketing angle for fundraising in the nebulous world of global health is clever, strategic, and plays at our human core as tribesmen. We inherently identify with individuals and have immense capacity for empathy that at times leads to action. Empathy has limitations. Our internal barometer maxes out when victims of poverty and disease are grouped as ‘statistical victims’ vs the more identifiable, individualized portrayal that we see often in the media . Limited social contacts fit into our survivalist conditioned, tribal circle. It is has been well established that we cannot conceptualize data that highlights the plight of the masses. People respond differently to statistical vs individualized representations of burden of disease, take 750,000 malaria deaths vs one struggling child, for example. The public identifies with the child and can internalize their suffering in a more accessible way than we can for throngs of people. But how do we construct and disseminate an effective message without perpetuating fear of the other and evoking paternalism from the general public?
Neglected, and not so neglected, tropical diseases are suffering from a lack of innovation in branding. Perhaps it is time we took a look at rewriting the sick villager narrative, even if it is proven to ‘work’. Isn’t it just as compelling to showcase a team of collaborative partners, working towards improving delivery systems, diagnostics and treatment methodologies? Of course the patient or the global population is intrinsically at the center of the story. That fact goes without saying. But the strong circle working towards elimination of ‘x’ disease also could pull in clicks, currency and concern. Whether it is malaria, lymphatic filariasis or Ebola, these ‘tropical’ diseases are indeed in need of attention from the masses. How to drum up that response in a meaningful, positive way is the question.
With Ebola gripping the world’s attention, we have a current vehicle from which we can examine and critique this conundrum. Perhaps we can advocate towards a different depiction of the outbreak, and for diseases that disproportionally burden vulnerable societies and populations. It is also imperative that we address the fear surrounding the afflicted. In the States, media outlets hype the importation of Ebola as an African threat. This time, the message is not about feeling bad for people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. The message is about feeling afraid that their plight can now reach those overseas. That is what is now motivating action and quite frankly unproductive panic. Governments didn't kick into high gear until the threat, or perceived threat, threw the response into the national security category. The current outbreak plays on prejudice and fear, while amplifying disparities in public health systems. Is this “racist moral panic” something we can work to combat by advocating to transform media and social marketing in global health ?
 Small et al. (2005). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identiﬁable and statistical victims. Science Direct. Available online at: http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/risk/library/J2007OBHDP_DAS_sympathy.pdf
Kate Dieringer RN, BSN, MPH worked as a technical advisor for the Malaria Alert Center/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (College of Medicine, Malawi) providing support for malaria programming and operational research initiatives in Malawi. Her background combines global health and emergency/trauma clinical services. She is invested in malaria prevention and control through community based partnerships, as well as health systems strengthening and investment in human capacity. Kate’s scope has focused on Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa regions involving HIV, malaria and maternal child health programming. Currently, she is working with Partners’ in Health Haiti on capacity building and clinical program implementation.