Skip to main content

A woman paints a thank you message to nurses and doctors on a boarded up shop in downtown Vancouver, on April 1, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

I’ve got a serious ear worm, a tune that keeps playing over and over in my head. Fortunately, it happens to be one of the most beautiful pop songs of the era. Lean On Me, by Bill Withers, is the perfect anthem for a time when “we all need somebody to lean on.”

Since the onset of the global pandemic, it has been ringing out all over the world – from balconies and bedrooms, hospital lobbies and sidewalks and, of course, from every corner of the online universe. People sang it outside a nursing home stricken by COVID-19 in Calgary. They sang it from the open windows of an apartment building in Dallas. They sang it from their porches in Providence, R.I.

Health care workers in blue gowns sang it in a Memphis hospital as they sat working at a ring of tables. Another group of health workers in Louisville, Ky., stood swaying in a hallway as they sang it through their surgical masks. Tenille Townes, a country singer from Grande Prairie, Alta., pulled together half a dozen fellow musicians to sing a lovely online rendition from their couches.

The passing of the gifted man who wrote the song added fuel to the revival. Mr. Withers died late last month of heart troubles at the age of 81. He grew up a poor boy from Slab Fork, W.Va. His mother was a maid; his father a coal miner who died when he was 13.

Mr. Withers came to music late, overcoming a lifelong stutter and teaching himself to play a pawnshop guitar. He arrived straight from his factory job in a beat-up car to record his first album. It included a hit song, the plaintive Ain’t No Sunshine, that launched his career.

Lean on Me, which came out on his second album in 1972, has proved even more enduring. With its gospel cadences and its simple, powerful words, it has carried people through crisis after crisis. The song has special resonance in this one, a globe-girdling disaster that leaves no place immune.

The message of Lean On Me is that helping others in their time of need isn’t just selfless charity. It’s in our own interest. Withers wrote the song in the form of a direct appeal to a friend: Call on me when you need a hand, “For it won’t be long, 'Til I’m gonna need, Somebody to lean on.”

That is just the spirit we need right now. This crisis has brought home how interlinked we all are, how vulnerable and how dependent on each other.

At a time when something as simple as mingling with friends might put them in danger, we need to be thinking harder than ever about how our actions affect others – and about what we can do to help them.

Whether or not they have been inspired by Lean On Me, people all over are recognizing these truths. Along with the obvious examples of bad behaviour – hoarding, price gouging, thoughtless mingling – the pandemic has brought forth a burst of giving. People all over are donating their money, time and creativity to aid those in need.

The British government had to stop accepting volunteers to help its National Health Service when three-quarters of a million people stepped up – three times the number officials had asked for. Thousands of Canadians have answered Ottawa’s call to assist Health Canada in tracking infection cases and help the medical system cope with a surge in patients. Scores of local groups have popped up to do everything from sew homemade masks to deliver food to shut-in neighbours.

Their efforts show we are far from helpless in the face of what looks like an overwhelming threat. Like those hospital workers swaying to the music in the hallway, we are finding that pulling together helps calm our fears and keep our hopes alive.

As Bill Withers put it in the first words of his song:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain,

We all have sorrow.

But if we are wise

We know that there’s always tomorrow.

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell discusses the far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic on refugees, conflict and the economy. Gladwell was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates.

The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct