'Karuna' in a post-coronavirus worldThe pandemic has made us simultaneously empathetic and estranged with fellow humans. Will we be nicer to each other once the crisis is over?
Before it became a part of our everyday life, many of us South Asians pronounced coronavirus, either in jest or out of ignorance, as ‘karunavirus’, which translates as ‘empathy-virus’. We couldn’t have thought of a better misnomer. But since we have the luxury to pontificate over the mundane and the phenomenal alike—thanks to the lockdown—we might as well give the mistaken identity some attention. Could the coronavirus be nature’s way of telling us to be more karunik, or empathetic, to fellow human beings? If the coronavirus can infect humans across the world within weeks, can humans, in turn, exploit karunavirus as a contagious antidote to the ills of the world the virus has helped diagnose?
Empathy, an emotional capacity to understand and engage with others, is what makes us social—and humane—beings. Contra empathy, estrangement is an emotional state of being unwilling to understand and engage with others. But these are not mutually exclusive: together, they define the perpetual emotional turmoil we humans go through all the time. Though undesirable, the conflict between empathy and estrangement is not an aberration. We faced it recently even as we came to terms with what is arguably the most poignant image of the coronavirus conundrum in Nepal: a Nepali man, in soggy underwear, being escorted by policemen right after he swam across the Mahakali into his homeland.
We were horrified to imagine that the man could have been any one of us, returning home in the face of uncertainty abroad. We loathed the government for its shoddy treatment of the man, and thousands of other migrant Nepalis, who came knocking on the border gates for a last-minute return home. We implored the government to bring all Nepalis stranded at the Nepal-India border into the country and put them in quarantine. We felt vindicated when the Supreme Court passed an interim order to that effect. We cheered the government when it brought 175 Nepalis from Wuhan in February.
But we were also worried if those returnees were active agents of the virus. We protested when the government tried to turn empty buildings into quarantine homes for the China returnees. We wanted them to be able to return home but wanted them to stay away from us.
It is this ethical paradox—of being empathetic and estranged with others simultaneously-that explains our emotional state in the post-coronavirus world. As all disasters do, the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in us. We are suspicious of foreigners, neighbours, relatives and family members. We want to go as far away from fellow humans as possible. We continue to be blatantly inhumane to other human beings on both political and personal levels. India's lockdown has left millions struggling for food and shelter even as television anchors and right-wing propagandists fuel Islamophobia, terming a religious congregation held in New Delhi last month as ‘coronajihad’; the Chinese continue to face racial discrimination for being 'agents' of the virus; the US faces accusations of ‘piracy’ after it redirected masks and medical equipment bound for France and Germany.
But we have also been bound by unprecedented solidarity with strangers, like never before, in collectively mourning the deaths of Italians, Chinese, Spaniards, Americans or Indians who fell prey to the pathogen. But we have also witnessed people bending over backwards to help the poor and the needy with essential supplies; doctors working tirelessly to ensure the infected are taken care of; and those of us not on the frontlines helping by simply staying home. We are not only in a medical emergency but social and political ones as well. Social norms have come under erasure as actions as normal as touching, embracing or meeting another person that we took for granted have become a potential threat to our lives. We have now suddenly had to come to terms with new social and political norms and unlearn the old ones. As a society, we are emotionally as strong as our weakest link. And it is exactly such situations when we are willing to change in order to survive.
The sudden necessity to stay apart together has allowed us to think of ourselves as part of a universal human community more than ever. In no moment in the past several decades has humanity come together for a common cause—the will to survive—like it has today. But are we willing to acknowledge the wrong turns we took all the way and turn back?
The pandemic has allowed us, for the first time in decades, to think of humans across the globe and acknowledge our responsibilities towards other inhabitants. It is time to ask ourselves whether universal humanity trumps national borders. And it is time to consider whether we can quarantine ourselves from our hatred of others. It’s imperative to consider our options right away as to whether we would like to continue to engage in the competitive exploitation of people, living beings and the planet, or make efforts, even if minuscule, towards fostering universal humanity, empathy, and belonging. If no step is taken towards making this world a better place, our collective grief that we are showing today will just be an ephemeral emotional outburst rather than a genuine will to change.
Although the virus is considered 'egalitarian' since it affects people across the barriers of caste, class, gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, it has exhibited to us the deeply fractured society we live in. Who gets to be treated continues to be determined by these barriers. A temporary plan to contain the contagion does not help solve the structural problem that leaves people from backward castes, communities, genders, nationalities and regions unable to fend for themselves in the face of a pandemic as well as in daily lives. And a temporary plan cannot change the way nuclear superpowers haggle over masks even as their nuclear weapons are ready to be launched any minute.
It takes years—even decades—of undoing the conflict we have unleashed amongst ourselves and divided the world. We need an ethical and political perspective that looks at the world anew and paves way for structural changes in the global order. It takes time for those changes to manifest, but the discourse must begin now. That will really be the acid test of how advanced we are as a human—and humane—society.