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Empathy to numbers– A COVID shift

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Think of a time in pre-COVID India when people were somewhat empathetic towards the death news that appear in media. If not empathetic at least people were sympathetic towards them. This culture of kindness or love or sympathy towards ‘others’, with whom we share no relation except as the same nationals, was an important element in maintaining cohesion among the members of the society. But this got a huge blow with the COVID crisis. Today with the normalization of loss of lives every day, deaths have become just numbers. Normalization of any unfavorable phenomenon will have a deteriorating impact on the society. A typical example would be the patrilocal practice (practice of couple settling in the husband’s home or community) after marriage. Though accepted by everyone in the society, the practice was clearly a manifestation of patriarchy which was being left unnoticed. Thus, normalization of a bad phenomenon should be thrown out in the initial stages itself.

Of course, we feel bad when the number of COVID cases increase and feel better when the number of deaths decrease. But this relaxation never equals the empathy that we possessed in pre-COVID times. Though this shift is not any individual’s fault, it is important to understand this psychological shift.

Empathy, as the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings, promotes kindness among the people. When you understand the sufferings of the kith and kin of a person who had lost his/her life in an accident, you won’t drive your vehicle fast. So, in a way empathy encourages one to be more responsible. But in the case of COVID, the deaths become so huge in quantity and was normalized, that the qualitative aspects of loss of lives were often overlooked. The recent Kumbh Mela crowd was a best example. Apart from other reasons there was an element of empathy attributed to the huge crowd. If people in Kumbh Mela have understood the sufferings of a COVID affected family, the crowd would have been much lesser, despite the irresponsible governance and hyper religiosity. But People had seen the deaths due to COVID only in quantitative aspects as numbers.

Recent election campaigns in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal saw huge crowd surrounding the popular party faces. Election Commission failed in strictly directing the parties to reduce the crowd. But why there wasn’t an all-party consensus among the political parties themselves in these election states to limit the crowd? Firstly, it is the duty of a political party to ensure the safety of the people as every political party competing to come to power. But in this power race, no party ready to care for the people. Here comes the role of empathy in ensuring the safety of the people. If these political parties would have understood the sufferings of a COVID affected family, an all-party consensus would have been reached before the elections. But during campaigning, people are seen in terms of number of votes, overlooking the qualitative aspect of one’s life.

In both the above cases of festival and elections, the lack of empathy towards the affected society, reduces the social cohesion within the society. This ultimately alienates the marginalized section of the society, who are always the first victim of any crisis.

Apart from the above cases, today every one of us view the COVID death only in numbers, though it’s not an individual’s fault. As said above, the normalization of deaths makes this shift. These huge numbers give us fear, but not empathy. Fear can deter us from being infected with the virus, but empathy can do more than that. To understand this let us ask ourselves some question regarding the effects that the COVID will have on the post COVID world. What’s going to be the future of a huge number of children who lost their parent or parents COVID crisis?  How the parents, who lost their children due to COVID, going to cope up with the loss? What about the fate of the school drop-outs because of COVID? What will be the ripple effect of the COVID for a daily wage earner or those in informal sectors or the migrants?

For all these questions, the answer lies in the coming days.

In every crisis, let it be flood, drought or COVID, the most affected people are the ones who were already affected the most. Socially, educationally and economically backward classes suffers a lot in every crisis. These people are always alienated from the society after every crisis. The section of population who needs the most from the State, are often left in the development process of the country. With the loss of empathy among the people this further aggravate the situation.

There were many steps that the government of the country should take to mitigate the sufferings of the above-mentioned people in the post COVID world. But what we as a society should do? The post COVID world needs a society that was more empathetic and kind to each other. Let us come out of the number game in COVID deaths and try to understand the sufferings of the people whose lives or livelihood has been affected due to COVID. It’s not that you should always think about the sufferings of others, instead try to understand once, the situation of the affected people from their point of view.

Thus, understanding how the post COVID world will be and the importance of empathy in a post COVID society will make a huge difference in the attitude of the people. This inturn will lead to a more cohesive society with reduced inequalities, that cares for each other.

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