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Practise physical, not social, distancing, says Jamil Zaki, author and Stanford professor.
Practise physical, not social, distancing, says Jamil Zaki, author and Stanford professor.

Opinion | It’s time you extended empathy digitally as well

This health crisis is far from being under control. As physical distancing becomes a norm, we will all need digital spaces to transform our personal loneliness into communal empathy


Most workplaces and educational institutes have been closed till we figure out how to escape the wrath of covid-19.

Since we don’t have a cure yet, social distancing is our only hope of staying healthy. While it is a vital strategy for slowing contagion, it pushes against our instinct for togetherness and can worsen our well-being and mental health.

In The War For Kindness: Building Empathy In A Fractured World, author Jamil Zaki, who’s professor of psychology at Stanford University, explains that physical, social and emotional distance don’t have to coincide. He suggests we should start by renaming social distancing to physical distancing to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart.

If we let physical distancing lead to social disconnection, it can intensify our loneliness which may further lead to sleeplessness, depression, cardiovascular problems and produce a similar mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Now more than ever we need empathy to be our guiding light and create a sense of solidarity inside and outside our communities. We need to channel it to meaningfully connect with our friends, family, neighbours and colleagues.

What gives me hope is the fact that empathy is flexible. It is an acquired skill that can be developed by training, deliberate practice, personal application and self-awareness. Zaki offers an interesting analogy. Our empathy is like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies, put to work, it grows.

There is, however, a catch. Empathy diminishes with time and distance. As Yale University professor Paul Bloom explains, our empathy flows most for those who look like us, think like us, seem familiar and are perceived as non-threatening.

Since the spectre of coronavirus transcends time, distance and extent of familiarity, it is a rare opportunity for us to scale our empathy and think as a global community.

Many of us blame online technologies and social media for ripping apart our social fabric. Turns out that when we are anxious or stressed, we tend to aimlessly scroll through our phones and find our anxiety transformed into unmitigated panic.

While this is a common use case , we should keep in mind that how we use technology is not pre-ordained. Those very tools that we love to hate are now our best hope for increasing our empathy quotient. Let’s consider the lockdown in Italy. Some inhabitants of the Tuscan city of Siena sang songs from their balconies. After the footage started circulating on social media, people across Italy started sharing videos of themselves singing.

The trend caught up in other countries, including Belgium. The online group, België zingt … uit het raam! – La Belgique chante… de sa fenêtre! (Belgium sings… from the window!), has built a big community where people from across the country sing from their windows everyday at 8pm. Millions of people around the world are using such online message boards, support groups and independent sites to share information and develop innovative ideas to grapple with isolation.

Videoconferencing tools and social media apps are playing a crucial role by enabling us not only to work and collaborate but also to hang out digitally. When we meet offline, we don’t expect every minute to be productive. We get our work done and also strengthen our social bonds with meandering discussions. Now it is the need of the hour to find ways to replicate this digitally.

This health crisis is far from being under control. As physical distancing becomes a norm, we will all need digital spaces to transform our personal loneliness into communal empathy. Perhaps for the first time in decades, billions of us have more in common than ever before. Suffering connects. Let’s leverage this time to pause and connect with ourselves and with the larger community we are all a part of.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community, and a WEF Global Shaper.

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