Here’s Why We Need To Infect Everyone With Empathy

So, something happened a couple of days ago. Like many others who have the luxury of doing so, I stocked up about two weeks’ worth of essentials using an online grocery service. The delivery guy arrived just a little after the promised time slot, which was unsurprising given the possible surge in orders (and we were told to expect a slight delay, over email and SMS). He dropped off the stash in my kitchen, looking every bit like someone who has already had a busy day (it was 9.45 am) and has more gruelling hours ahead. I offered him a glass of water and asked him how the past few days have been and he said it was busy but the worst part was people rudely calling him to ask for order updates. “People call up immediately after the delivery slot, don’t they realise that there are so many orders and it takes a lot of effort getting these boxes from the truck to the house, for the whole day?” he said.

While his account saddened me, it definitely didn’t surprise me. The Indian middle class entitlement and built-in biases have often left delivery personnel and domestic help seem like second-class citizens. And the proliferation of gratification-at-a-button apps that promise to minimise human contact has only exacerbated this. There are several accounts of how delivery men face mistreatment during the festive seasonsecurity problemsimmense pressure, and of course, low wages. There are some shocking videos on YouTube where guys play pranks on delivery guys, scaring the wits out of them. There are even comedy sketches using that as a trope. And that’s during regular times.

During a pandemic, these people put their lives on the line to get stuff to us because they don’t have the luxury of working from home. It sickens me that instead of being treated with a little bit of dignity, they are harassed even more (I like talking to these delivery men as they provide me an insight into my fellow privileged Indians more than any consultancy report ever can).

My plea is a very simple one: Show empathy at this most trying of times.

Our treatment of delivery personnel is nothing compared to how the country treats its domestic help. There are several anecdotes, and a search for “Indians treat domestic help” throws up depressing anecdotes, one after the other. One of the first company profiles of BookMyBai, a maid-finding service, was even titled, “Can technology finally make rich Indians treat their maids like human beings?” which says a lot about our inherent entitlement. During these times, how hypocritical is it to expect our office to ask employees to work from home, while scolding maids for not coming home and putting one through the inconvenience of having to spend 20 minutes cleaning our own dishes?

My plea is a very simple one: Show empathy at this most trying of times.

To the silent heroes who ensure you and I will be able to easily make it through until things get better – the delivery men of e-commerce companies, food apps, and even the local delivery store. Thanks to them, we don’t need to worry about anything from atta to cat food to medicines. Cut them some slack if the delivery is a little later. Tip them a little. Offer water and hand sanitiser.

To your domestic help who depends on you for their livelihood. Give them leave and reassure them they will be paid and their job is not in jeopardy. Not only does it help them socially isolate as they should, it will give them a much-needed breather. It’s likely you’re more aware of the virus and what misinformation abounds – tell them (my maid was unaware of what to do and what precautions to take). Do unto them as you would like to be treated by your boss. The circumstances, really, aren’t all that much different and when things get worse, rich India will realise this.

To your watchmen. Ask if they’re okay. Given them an extra bottle of sanitiser. Tell them how to wash their hands, and if you can help them order something since they can’t leave their posts.

To your cab drivers, should you need to take a ride. The guy’s probably shit scared that you might infect them (especially if you’re returning from an airport or headed to a hospital). I read a heartbreaking account on Facebook, of someone who had to take a cab and their driver broke down because this was his first ride of the day and there were much fewer passengers, and he was wondering how to make ends meet.

I’m advocating the bare minimum empathy towards those not as fortunate as ourselves.

I don’t think I’m saying anything extraordinary here if anyone considers me a social justice warrior because I’m advocating the bare minimum empathy towards those not as fortunate as ourselves… Bring on the insults, I say.

If nothing else, remember the coronavirus spread operates on the weakest link. Offering one’s maid time off reduces one’s own chances of being infected. Asking delivery men to wash hands makes the chances of infection in the area less. And so on.

There are many things that will be tested in what is possibly humanity’s biggest collective challenge after climate change – our economic systems, our healthcare delivery, our political leadership, and much more. But when the story of the coronavirus is written, I believe a large chapter will be devoted to how well (or otherwise) we treated those less fortunate than ourselves. Because for once – and it’s amazing how nature works – how well we do, will depend on how well we treat them.

Deepak Gopalakrishnan

This article was first published in Arre