A Plea from Jakarta: May Empathy and Sympathy be the New Normal

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how we construct, sustain, think about and create relationships with others. This is inevitable as we cannot touch each other, we must stand at least one meter apart, we cannot speak closely and have to wear a mask when we do. According to scholars such as Wilkin (1979), Nissel and Bonnerjea (1982), Glendinning (1983), Cecil, Offer and St. Leger (1987), and Qureshi and Simons (1987), human relationships change in the face of long-term illness, and I wonder about the relevance of these studies to our current situation. If all of this goes on too long, there is a possibility that people might stop identifying with others, and lose feelings of empathy and sympathy for them. In Indonesia, this has arguably started to happen. Many people frequent shopping centers and restaurants without respecting health measures, others gather in front of their houses.  Even if we use masks, this is still dangerous. Many doctors and nurses have died because they were exposed to this virus: how long will it continue if the Indonesian people do not comply with health protocols?

Many countries are already experiencing a second ‘wave’ but Indonesia is still in the first as the number of Covid-19 transmissions never decreased. People around the world are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic differently. My observation may therefore not apply everywhere, yet it seems that a certain three-stage emotional journey results from the recent pandemic-related changes in lifestyle. The first short-term stage is marked by the sudden disruption of freedom alongside quarantine. This is followed by a stage of acute confusion, uncertainty, and mental fatigue due to prolonged lockdown and negative economic impacts kicking in. The third is an uneven acceptance of the “new normal”, alongside changes in habit, and a new outlook on life—sometimes involving significant mental health challenges.

A few days ago I met with a motorcycle taxi driver or ojek.  I asked him why he wasn’t wearing a mask.  Without hesitation he answered that he has a mask, but he only has a few.  He told me that as the price of masks is expensive, he chooses to wear the mask on alternate days, for the sake of his family, as he has three children. He also told me that many of his friends are not wearing any masks as they cannot afford them.  For the ojek driver, life offers little choice.  For him, living in Jakarta with his wife and three small children is very hard. He cannot buy the necessities of life for his family. With a trembling voice he explained that “It might not be a problem for the rich people but what can I do if all I have is love for my family.” He added that there were many organizations that supposedly want to help, but even now he has still not had access to any resources.“I am sure that even before Covid-19 the poverty rate was countless,” he said. According to Statistics Indonesia, before the Covid-19 pandemic there were about 24 million impoverished people in the country (9.22 % of the population of 270 million), and the government has projected that millions more will fall into poverty and unemployment due to the pandemic.

As social inequality continues to grow and trust among people decreases, we must work harder to be non-judgmental and to recognize the plight of others—we must encourage others to care by wearing a mask, yet also have empathy with people struggling to do so like the ojek driver.  Acceptance, genuineness and empathy are crucial during a pandemic:  May we respect people’s feelings, experiences and values, even though they may be different from ours. May we be genuine, showing others with our body language that we accept them and their values by what we say and do.  With empathy we hear, understand and try to feel what others are experiencing. If we don’t make an effort to practice this quality, especially during this crisis, we may lose our ability to connect with each other, which may aggravate many other social challenges we are already facing.

Jamieson (2011) has defined intimacy with friend as the quality of close connection between people and the process of building this quality.  This is not strictly related to physical contact, yet these are clearly related.  Without being able to hug, we must remember to cherish one another. I truly hope that as a community we continue to have faith in each other, cultivating strong feelings of empathy and sympathy, such that when the pandemic is over, we will remember how to be friends.  


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Tagged: #Affect #Class #Colonialism #Economy #Emotional labour #English #Geopolitics of care #Health care #Quarantine #Race #Self-care

17 septembre 2020 — Wisnu Adihartono

Wisnu Adihartono

Jakarta, Indonesia

Wisnu Adihartono received his Ph.D in sociology from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), France, where he focused on gender, migration, family studies and Southeast Asian studies. His dissertation concerned migration and family relationships in the case of Indonesian gay men in Paris (in French language). For publications please contact him at wisnuadi.reksodirdjo@gmail.com, or find him at his Instagram @wisnuadireksodirdjo