By: Fatima Rawat
Much has been written about the moral ills that have surfaced during COVID-19. From PPE corruption to the theft of food parcels, to the spreading of fake news. This has received so much attention that we can sometimes think the pandemic has shown us to be a bad society. This, however, ignores the overwhelming majority of South Africans who have come out of the pandemic with flying colours and increased levels of empathy.
COVID-19 has tested us on so many levels, as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a society at large. More than ever, it has tested our moral fibre and our sense of how we relate to others. It has challenged us and pushed us out of our comfort zone and made us conscious of the impact we have on each other.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who reflected that pre-COVID she felt she had fulfilled her moral obligations by donating to charity, but COVID has required that she thinks far more about the impact of her actions on others. From respecting lockdown rules to wearing a mask to making a conscious choice that she will take the vaccine when she is eligible, overall, COVID had changed her moral thinking.
And she is not alone. From our health care workers, educators, and those on the frontline, to everyday citizens – all have stretched themselves to do more, within their means, to help others.
We say that ethics is about balancing what is good for the self with what is good for others who are affected by what we do or say. Empathy is about identifying with and understanding the situation that another person is in, their feelings and motives, as well as letting them know that you understand where they are at. By being empathetic we are aware of our connection with others, the communities we live in and the broader society – and we take that into account before we act or make decisions – being mindful of our impact on others. Empathising with others is also good for the self, as it helps people feel less lonely and more connected.
Whilst empathy is considered universally good, the reality is that our lived experience of empathy is affected by so many things. Research has shown that empathy could be affected by various interpersonal and cultural factors and that people are likely to have enhanced empathy for members of their group, above others. The pandemic at its peak has however exposed us all to a common vulnerability, leading us to share our fears and concerns with all of our fellow citizens. For a while, we could relate to each other in previously difficult ways. There was an overwhelming sense of care for others in its broadest sense.
The moral challenge that COVID has placed on each of us as individuals and as organisations is about the extent to which we are considerate of others. The pandemic has sharply heightened our awareness of the disparities in our society. It has increased our sense of what others are experiencing – from illness to the loss of loved ones, unemployment, financial struggles, anxiety, and depression. It has led us to find new ways of reaching out to our fellow citizens and to show empathy, but also to be connected.
The lockdown regulations themselves are strongly rooted in both taking care of ourselves and of the impact that we could have on others – from staying indoors when needed to wear a mask, to practising social distancing. Despite criticism over the nuances of some aspects of the regulations, they have cultivated a strong sense of civic responsibility and a common understanding of our obligation to take care of ourselves first, to do no harm to others, and to do what we can to support other people, especially those who are in need.
The pandemic did not come with a rule book, setting out how we should respond. It has required us as a country, as individuals, and as organisations to adapt quickly and develop responses that are both good for us and others. It has allowed us to be more understanding of other people, to reach out and open our hearts and minds about what they are experiencing. Not only did this give us a sense of where the other is at, but in doing so we were able to experience social connectedness, which in turn helped us to deal with our feelings of despair or isolation.
We have seen many small acts, such as running errands for a sick neighbour, putting together a care package for a health care worker, or simply enquiring about each other’s health, along with so many other unsolicited wonderful displays of empathy that have added to our connectedness and our humanity.
Organisations too have been grappling with adapting to the new normal, finding creative ways of working that benefit the business whilst trying to ensure that employees are satisfied, productive and engaged whilst working from home. This has required organisations to be curious, to better understand their employees, their work-home circumstances, and how best to make the situation work.
At a time when the risk of employees experiencing disengagement, burnout, anxiety, mental and financial strain is higher than ever before, a culture of connectedness has become most pertinent.
Effective leadership under COVID-19 has required that managers put themselves in their employees’ shoes, lead with empathy and compassion, expressly letting employees know that their health and well-being is cared for, respecting employees’ boundaries when working from home, setting realistic deadlines, and prioritising employee’s health and well-being. By leading with empathy during this time, organisations have been able to build trust and increasing the culture of connectedness.
While not denying that we have seen some who have acted selfishly and advantaged themselves at the expense of others, most South Africans have risen admirably to the COVID challenges – especially on a moral level. The ongoing challenge for humankind would be to deepen that sense of empathy beyond external factors – embedding it in our convictions – resulting in a more ethical and empathic society.
Fatima Rawat is a Senior Ethics Associate at The Ethics Institute