The COVID-19 pandemic came with a bulk of baggage that no one had ever anticipated. Its effects on the economy are far and wide, its effect on people’s personal livelihoods potentially life-threatening, and the reactions it has garnered from societies around the world completely unprecedented. Shows of solidarity, signs of unity, and endless charitable challenges on social media aside, there has also been a far more sinister outbreak of racism and judgement. It has targeted China (see US President Trump’s controversial ‘Chinese virus’ statement in reference to coronavirus), Asian communities and diasporas, and people from working-class communities and underprivileged areas where access to knowledge, sanitation, and even food, is far more limited than the world cares to admit.

This is not the time to shit on people of different cultures and nationalities; we’re all in this together.

A Dubai-based brand, Exhale, launched a campaign in collaboration with UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah and Sukoun identity studio, in response to the waves of racism coming into the spotlight in light of the pandemic. “[Some] people with privilege are looking down on others without privilege, calling a whole culture or nationality or segment of people inferior somehow because they’re not dealing well with the pandemic,” Shah, whose photo series spotlighting people's insecurities, Rock Your Ugly, went viral last year, explains. “This is not the time to shit on people of different cultures and nationalities; we’re all in this together,” he continues, touching upon the aim of the #CompassionIsContagious campaign.

The campaign consists of a video and a photo series; both coloured with the same black-and-white filter, with people of diverse backgrounds wearing masks emblazoned with “Compassion Is Contagious” in both English and Chinese script. The designs were all made in collaboration with Sukoun studio's Mohammed Abualqumssan. “The Chinese writing, the way it’s phrased, is targeted to people who are not Chinese,” Shah explains - an inadvertent detail in translation that he believes is also key to the story, because the campaign is, at its core, about unity, understanding and empathy across borders - something that is embodied in the simple translation from English to Chinese, a subtle call for people to broaden their understandings of other cultures around the world.

...try to empathise with one another, especially since it seems we have a long journey ahead of us in fighting this virus.

 “We are all human beings and it is important to get out of our bubble and understand that in this world, there are billions of lives that don’t speak, walk, talk or act like you,” explains Exhale founder and director Nawal El Masri. “We noticed a lot of discrimination at the start of the COVID-19 [outbreak], which turned into an idea to inspire people to refrain from such acts and instead try to empathise with one another, especially since it seems we have a long journey ahead of us in fighting this virus.”

Waleed Shah.

The idea behind the phrase, ‘compassion is contagious’ is to use the narratives surrounding COVID-19 in promoting and encouraging more human qualities in the midst of the myriad instructions from the World Health Organization and other governments to practice social distancing and personal hygiene. This form of messaging, however, through art, can even be more powerful, according to Shah. “It is important to talk about issues through your art, that’s really what being an artist or art is really about,” says Shah, explaining that art allows for communicating larger, more relatable discussions - that can include notions such as racism, classism and compassion - during times of global crises.

...understand that in this world, there are billions of lives that don’t speak, walk, talk or act like you.

Exhale as an apparel brand identifies itself as a conceptual and artistic brand that seeks to merge fashion and comfort with art and storytelling. This campaign, drawing on their own aesthetic and their use of clear and direct, often philosophical messaging in their clothing, is part and parcel of the brand’s ongoing mission.

You can check out the full project here.