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Expert Mercy: The “Secret Sauce” We Need to Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic

John Tlumacki / Boston Globe
Photo Credit: John Tlumacki / Boston Globe
March 25, 2020

In times of fear, anxiety, polarization, and distancing spurred by a pandemic, there is one response we have learned from history that offers both outbreak control and solace: “expert mercy.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health (PIH), defines expert mercy as a mix of “compassionate fellow feeling with interventions that save the sick and slow down the spread.” Expert mercy can take many forms — from a meal delivered to someone unable to leave their home to an oxygen mask for someone in need of urgent medical care.  

Dr. Farmer explores what expert mercy entails in light of COVID-19 in a Boston Globe opinion piece titled, “We know how to confront the coronavirus pandemic — expert mercy.” 

PIH, one of SCSC’s core partners in research, programming and advocacy related to public health, has been providing healthcare for vulnerable communities for over the past 30 years. The work of PIH embodies a “with, not for” approach, which is rooted in solidarity and recognizes the fundamental role of social and community support in healthcare. 

Taking lessons learned from the Ebola, AIDS, and cholera epidemics, Dr. Farmer highlights the need to strengthen our social supports, optimize our tracing and testing efforts, and protect our healthcare workers.

In facing this pandemic, we must offer both compassion and intervention rooted in respect, recognition and reciprocity — core values that ground SCSC’s approach to working with communities — and expert mercy offers an approach to help us meet this end. 

With expert mercy, greater social connectedness can be an outcome of this crisis; without, we’re at the mercy of panic, politicization, and polarization.