I have been consciously trying to stay away from pandemic-related news. It's not an easy feat to achieve though. Five minutes on Facebook can shake you out of your petty concerns about what to eat for dinner and place you right at the centre of the dizzying scale of human tragedy triggered by Covid. Just in one scroll I came across several heart-wrenching pieces of news. In a village in Bihar, three kids went hungry for days after having lost both their parents to Covid. The neighbours didn't even bother to check up on the children out of fear of contracting the virus. In Patna, a hapless son trying to save his mother was charged a lakh for Remdesivir by a pharmacist. Another report suggests that some vendors in the national capital have been painting discarded fire extinguishers black and selling them as oxygen cylinders. All these news articles are shared with angry captions spelling the "death of humanity".
On the other end of the spectrum are stories of courage and kindness. You heave a sigh of relief reading a cute little post on someone distributing food to Covid patients, or a braveheart rescuing a stranger in the middle of a medical crisis.
This constant emotional fluctuation — from losing all faith in humanity to having it restored — sometimes just based on news reports is a lot to deal with and that's not a very healthy thing. The tendency to either glorify or demonise human nature based on actions of individuals with their personal drives and motivations can take a tremendous moral and emotional toll on us. As if our morality and humanity are always being put to test. As a result there is an increased need among people to go out and help people or at least empathise with those suffering.
Altruism, empathy, charity, reciprocation of kindness would all fall under the generic umbrella of "prosocial behaviour". All humans are capable of it because sticking together and helping each other has played an important role in our survival through ages. Such behaviour is motivated by kinship, genetics and adult modelling during childhood among other factors. In fact, it may not be different from any other kind of pleasant experience as it activates reward centres in our brain.
No wonder then, at least in urban centres, people are actively seeking out opportunities to help others. And sometimes even overdoing it. Just the other day I got a call from an acquaintance who wanted to do a food distribution drive in Delhi. On observing that there were no takers, he promptly moved on to his next idea — a hotline to provide emotional support to people. It was quite an effort to explain to him that counselling is a specialised field and that it may not be the best idea to let untrained 20-year-olds talk to anxious and aggrieved people.
By consuming and hailing news stories about human kindness, performing service and empathising with the loss of others we reassure ourselves of our uniqueness in the face of crippling death anxiety. That even though we are being wiped away in hordes, we are still capable of empathy — a quality that sets us apart. We feign ignorance of the darker aspects of human nature and pretend to be shocked when we come across reports of doctors aiding black marketing of essential drugs or someone we know charging money to donate plasma.
It would do us no harm to pause and ask a few questions of ourselves before we write off or give a clean chit to the essential nature of our species. Are we banking too much on human empathy to get things done right now? Isn't relying on human kindness a wild gamble anyway? Hoarding and black marketeering are systemic problems, not necessarily a crisis of humanity or empathy. It is way too easy to call for empathy and kindness of the general public, instead of demanding robust institutions and holding public servants accountable.
Like every resource, empathy too is limited. We cannot draw from it endlessly. Sometimes we will feel lost and confused, and at others numb and tired given the current circumstances. There will be days when you may be too tired doing the laundry and dishes to feel any grief and sadness for the suffering around. You may feel physically and emotionally drained to be of any help to anyone. And that would absolutely be okay.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults.)