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I-me-and-myself: Our meanness quotient just went up

We kid ourselves if we think the pandemic has made people more empathetic. That’s like believing that posting videos of animals implies one has got more appreciative of nature

I don’t know about you, but it makes me a bit sick when I read—or watch—reports ad nauseam on how the world at large is putting aside its long-held differences to come together as one in an effort to fight a pandemic. Everyone has suddenly become “mindful", we have been injected with more “empathy", our core compassionate values are being reinstated, we are “heeding" warnings, we now have “quality time" for significant—and insignificant—others… and so on and so forth.

Are you kidding me?

Just because someone happens to shoot a video of a peacock flaunting its plumage on a non-congested road during lockdown, and puts it up on social media, from where it sprints on a viral journey, doesn’t mean we’re now more appreciative of nature and therefore better human beings, right?

Or that because I am sharing a link to a humanitarian crisis article on Facebook, I am, from now on, likely to put aside a sizeable portion of my savings into a fund for those less privileged than me? (Let’s face it, those of us who’d be inclined to “do good" were or are probably doing it in any case, corona or no corona.)

A few days ago, my father’s elderly landlady, an affectionate octogenarian who lives alone on the first floor of a standalone house, fell ill and was laid up in bed for a few days. There was talk about getting her tested for covid, and more talk about “but who’s going to bell the cat?" Everyone was keen to have their own tracks covered, which is perfectly understandable. Only, it doesn’t exactly conjure up a Missionaries of Charity-like image, tending selflessly to patients afflicted with a contagious disease.

The landlady’s part-time maid informed my father that it would not be possible for her to come to work because “everyone" was asking her to steer clear of “that house".

I have two questions, I said to my dad. One, how did “everyone" find out she was ill? And, two, why does “everyone" assume she’s got covid?

Well, people will be what they are, he responded. “The maid has put out a newsletter in the neighbourhood—you know how much she loves to gossip—and now they are all wagging their tongues and adding fuel to fire."

So much for good thoughts and heightened sensitivities, I thought to myself: without even feigning the slightest concern, people seem ready to jump right into the cesspool of imagining a worst-case scenario. Mind you, this is one of the more “educated" areas around town, where most have access to information and the means to make a difference.

As it turned out, said landlady didn’t need to get tested. She recovered in a couple of days (my father claimed it was the green tea he made for her that did the trick), and it was put down to one of the many frailties of old age. I suspect she had the seasonal flu.

This is obviously not an isolated case. There are horror stories that have emerged over detected and suspected covid patients. Them being ostracized, not receiving essential care and services they have the right to, the subsequent fanning of mental health issues, and worse. Some time back, Justice Ashok Bhushan of the Supreme Court of India observed, “Covid-19 patients are treated worse than animals. In one case, a dead body was found in [a] garbage [dump]." A BBC India report said, “Doctors have been spat at and chased away from homes, and that in one case patients directed abusive and vulgar language towards female nurses. Some physicians and their families have also been ostracized by their neighbors because of their exposure to patients infected with covid-19". This, right after the Prime Minister urged one and all to clap for health workers as a mark of gratitude. I could go on and on.

And yet, here we are, collectively patting ourselves on the back and saying, “We will emerge stronger, more united at the end of it."

The physiology and psychology of isolation has at once made us self-contained and, by extension, limited. It’s extending to non-covid parts of our lives too. A long-lost contact tried to re-establish a connect with me via a WhatsApp message first—where he spoke about feeling low—and then repeated phone calls. I ignored all of them because I couldn’t be bothered. Gawd, I don’t want to hear someone’s stories of misery, let me just binge on Netflix instead. Had I actually been floating in an alleged ecosystem of redefined sensibilities, I’m sure I’d have made an effort. Screen time on my phone has increased and communication has never been easier. Yet, I find it taxing to have meaningful conversations. Forwarding jokes, silly videos and attention-seeking selfies or food photos, on the other hand, are par for the course.

The part-time maid at my dad’s landlady’s place has, in the meantime, returned to work. It was duly reported to me that she had commented, “I toyed with the idea of quitting but I knew better sense would prevail. This is an easy job, the woman lives alone, has frugal needs, and I get paid market rates for doing almost nothing."

At least she’s honest.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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