Will the experience of coronavirus pandemic make us better human beings? Will it make us more compassionate towards fellow human beings? Some people may rule out the chances of an invisible virus turning the world into a better place. After all, human deaths and sufferings are not new. If the large scale deaths could evoke empathy, we would have been living in a different world as man’s history is replete with such instances. The war and conflict ravaged people know it better. Their misery could not move the world beyond token condemnation and condolences.
Humans have been killing thousands of fellow humans with little remorse and sense of empathy. The killers feel separate from those they are killing. The dehumanizing discourse of the politicians and lapdog media ensures that the victims are seen as less than human, undeserving of any sympathy. But the pandemic is different from the oppression and death wrought by men for when it strikes no one is spared, no matter their wealth or status in life. Everyone is equally at risk.
Feeling personally vulnerable and realizing the vulnerability of everyone else, our normal sense of difference and privilege should melt away, making way for genuine empathy.
Here I recall Daniel Defoe’s account of the great plague of 1665 that swept through London, killing nearly 100,000 people. Interestingly, Defoe was only five year old at the time, but he witnessed the plague firsthand. And it seems to have left a deep impression on him for nearly 60 years later he decided to re-create the events in London that year. His book ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ is a dramatic reconstruction of the 1665 London plague outbreak.
Based on his extensive research involving an older narrator, journal of his uncle and even his own memories, Defoe draws the sketch of a society going through a period of intense crisis both tangible, in the disease, and intangible, in the moral dilemmas the outbreak poses. Amid the plague, the narrator of the book notices a strange change in people who now tend to feel much greater levels of empathy toward their fellow citizens with the normal differences between them, particularly over religious issues, disappearing in the face of the plague.
Can we find similar cleansing effect with COVID-19? Can we see outpouring of empathy?
Of course we can’t conquer our baser instincts and become sages overnight. There will always be a subconscious urge directed by self-serving motivations. But there should be a semblance of realization.
I am tempted to bring media into the equation because of the way some Indian news channels tried to communalise the pandemic. Forget empathy, there was a clear attempt by some anchors to fuel hatred among Hindus for fellow Muslim citizens and I fear they may have succeeded in it to a large extent. There has perhaps never been a more dire need for reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims in India. The least we can afford is further polarization which some media outlets have become experts at.
While engaging in mindless debates aimed at religious and racist profiling, the media has not shown the plight of poor and hungry migrants heading home. There are a few honorable exceptions though. Recently, while watching the BBC Dunya 10 PM bulletin on NDTV India, I was moved by the gesture of BBC journalist Salman Ravi. While interviewing a group of migrant workers, he found one of them walking barefoot. Salman took off his shoes and asked the man to try them on and keep them if they fit.
India has been witnessing heartbreaking visuals of migrant workers heading back to their homes. An exhausted boy being dragged as he slept on a suitcase is just one such disturbing image.
We may argue that the new and uncertain danger posed by Coronavirus has had such a huge emotional impact on people that it would be unfair to expect more from the already stressed and fearful people. However, as research has shown, empathy occurs naturally in the brain. It is our ability to recognize and understand the mental states of others such as sorrow or fear as well as our ability to share those feelings with the others without any direct emotional stimulation to oneself. It’s only a matter of practicing it to be more mindful and compassionate human being.
Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the human frailty on an unprecedented scale. While we need to stay alert and updated with the latest developments of Coronavirus, it doesn’t mean we should become more paranoid and less empathetic.