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Softwares are a set of instructions that tell a computer what to do or how to perform a task. Similarly, values or value-system function as softwares of human bodies and guide their behaviour in a range of contexts and situations. Even though different individuals have varied values ingrained in them, their social, economic, cultural and political contexts play a decisive role in shaping their overall value systems and behavioural patterns. While the world battles its biggest humanitarian challenge since the World War II- the COVID-19 pandemic, the societies which can successfully practise decency and empathy are likely to emerge winners.

Humanity is in a severe crisis due to the novel Corona Virus outbreak infecting millions of people and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.1 However, thanks to the investments made in scientific research and modern medicine especially in the last three centuries, medical practitioners, epidemiologists and public health experts are able to prescribe standard ways in varying configurations to deal with the pandemic- testing, tracing, containment, quarantine, social distancing, practising hygiene, handwashing, wearing masks etc. Still, the number of infections and the death toll is increasing. Although the researchers are at it, a vaccine or a definitive medical solution is still a while away from us. So how do we make sense of this pandemic situation and how do we contain it?

Noted French philosopher, author and journalist, Albert Camus in his famous novel ‘The Plague’ offers two valuable insights regarding the nature of pandemics and how to weather through them.2 Firstly, we must realise that the world and the human condition is full of uncertainties, and there are limits to knowledge and human action. Therefore, we must develop a scientific temper. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s not ‘heroism’ but ‘common decency’ that is the only means of fighting a plague or a calamity.

So, how can decency be a potent means of overcoming the pandemic situation? It should become part of our value system like software in a computer to help us make sense of the situation and guide our behaviour. At the same time, we must denounce every indecent act, both individually and collectively. Panic-buying, hoarding, over-pricing essential items, withholding or slashing workers’ wages, laying-off employees, sharing fake and junk messages on social media platforms riddled with conspiracy theories of all kinds which cause needless anxiety, etc. are certainly the hallmarks of indecent behaviour. Not following the social distancing protocols and attacking the police and the healthcare workers are grossly indecent acts as well. Similarly, excesses by police and state agencies on the migrant workers and the poor belies common decency.

Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk notes, “People have always responded to epidemics by spreading rumour and false information and portraying the disease as foreign and brought in with malicious intent”.3 Perhaps the worst form of social indecency is revealed in the attempts at fomenting communal tensions and blaming a particular community or groups of people as ‘super-spreaders’. Many groups of people including migrant workers, sanitation workers, Muslims, doctors, nurses and paramedics are facing social boycott and contempt because they are perceived as ‘diseased bodies’ or ‘carriers of virus’. Although, the Germ Theory makes formulations like “Typhoid Mary’ or ‘Super-spreaders’ as untenable, lack of scientific temper and science education makes us vulnerable to such misinformation, and consequently, results in indecency in our social behaviour.4 In the societal imagination, it turns victims into perpetrators. The novel Corona Virus could travel through air or physical contact between humans. It has no regard for social categorisations like caste, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, profession or nationality. Therefore, it is not only highly indecent but also morally outrageous to look at COVID-19 infections through the prism of prejudice.

Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall says that it’s the quality of empathy that brings us closer to our highest human potentiality.5 Apart from common decency, another software or ethical code that needs to be urgently re-installed in our society and polity so as to reboot them for the better is empathy. Every intervention to contain and resolve COVID-19 pandemic must incorporate empathy without fail. In order to ascertain whether ‘we’ as a country have deployed empathy in our policy interventions, it’s useful to ask the following questions. Do we provide quality healthcare to the infected persons instead of blaming them? Do we ensure a safe workplace for our healthcare and sanitation workers? Do we compensate them adequately? While enforcing the lockdown as a containment measure, do we ensure that the informal and migrant workers, slum dwellers and homeless, rural poor, elderly, children, persons with disabilities etc. are cared for? Do we ensure that the farmers, traders, entrepreneurs etc. are able to tide over the crisis? While providing the relief to the distressed, are we upholding the dignity and self-worth of the individuals or are we using them as props for our photo-ops and advertisements? Is the state machinery including the police acting in a just and humane manner? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ then we have lost our fight against the pandemic already. Its only when our policy-makers, politicians, administrators and civil society and the society at large develop more empathy towards fellow human beings and the same is reflected in their interventions that we can truly hold our heads high as a civilization.

According to the great anthropologist Margaret Mead, the first indication of human civilization is care over time for one who is broken and in need, as evidenced through a fractured thigh bone that was healed in a 15,000 years old Mesopotamian archaeological site.6 The ability to care about their fellow beings distinguishes human beings from other species. Empathy is the cornerstone of human civilization. We require the values of decency and empathy as ethical codes of our society, politics, culture and economy like never before to sail us through the pandemic and the life after that.

- Prof. Anup Tripathi, Assistant Professor - Sociology

*Views expressed are personal.