Is COVID Unlocking Something Society Desperately Needs?

Yesterday in a team meeting we determinedly tried to think of opportunities presented by COVID-19. It’s not easy to look for the bright side through all of this, when watching the news is so depressing that it makes you want to crawl into a hole with a box of Godiva chocolates – which is ironic since that’s what you are already doing. It was in this exercise, ideating and pontificating with the lovely James and Rick in Philadelphia, Colombia, and DC, that I realized this crisis could bring about a societal shift that we desperately need: a window into our common humanity.

The roots of dehumanization

I spent years studying genocide and ethnic cleansing, repeatedly contemplating what could possibly inspire someone to kill someone else, how differences could become so salient as to believe that another group deserved to die. While working in Bosnia, I interacted with Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in my day to day life – they looked no different, spoke no different, acted no different. Yet just a few decades before I walked the city streets of Sarajevo, Bosnian Serbs were shooting from the hills down into the streets and marketplaces, killing whoever might be crossing the street. 

In the Roots of Evil, by Ervin Staub, he identifies a process called dehumanization that is central to atrocities. This is a phenomenon where one group of people is encouraged to perceive the other as inhuman, usually through a concerted and multipronged propaganda campaign. The outgroup is typically portrayed as animals, vermin, lice, or bugs, unsavory entities that “need” to be exterminated. For example, the Jews in Europe were represented as rats, the Tutsis in Rwanda, cockroaches. Actions such as giving people numbers, shaving their heads, and forcing them into ghettos and cattle cars were all carefully designed ways to make them seem less like humans. This conversion to a less than human status promotes “moral disengagement,” whereby the moral compass that might normally prevent a person from killing someone else disengages on account of that group’s new sub-status.

This disengagement includes a frightening loss – or lack – of empathy and compassion. In first hand accounts of genocide, the cold way in which many people recount perpetrators killing the victims is startling.

In that moment, if anyone is inhuman, it’s the perpetrator, not the victim. The former shuts himself down, closes himself off, so as to protect himself from the harm he is perpetrating. He shoves his feelings so far down into himself that sometimes they never return.

The leveling of humanity

Watching the catastrophic death counts several nights ago with Ben and Jerry (peanut butter cup is my new favorite), I paused when Governor Cuomo said something that made me think that maybe, just maybe, this unprecedented pandemic could engender a huge societal shift that the world has been aching for. He said “this virus is the great equalizer.”

It doesn’t matter how rich or how poor you are, where you’re from, your race or ethnic group, it can hit you and your family too (this doesn’t discount that some people are more at risk than others – for example, African Americans are being hit especially hard due to systemic discrimination and poor healthcare, and women are also bearing a huge brunt).  However, the point is still salient- no matter how big the mansion is in which you are locked away, you are not safe. It’s the first time ever where every single person has been at risk, and has been exposed to death on their doorstep.

Though we lose lives every year in combat, the volunteer nature of our military means that most people, particularly the upper class and coastal populations, are disconnected from the sacrifices and deaths of our soldiers. And the rich, as demonstrated by Cadet bone spurs, have somehow always managed to weasel their way out of serving, to remain in their palaces and mansions, untouched by death. Yet that is not the case here. If Tom Hanks and Boris Johnson, a movie star and a world leader respectively, can get coronavirus, anyone can.

In the past several weeks, I have spoken to friends and colleagues all over the world, from Peru to Washington State to China to Spain. For the first time, the lighthearted ones who usually pop mindless jokes bear the same angst and worry in their faces as the others. The men who usually are remiss to show their feelings suddenly show pain on their lips, their eyes, their foreheads, their chins. It doesn’t matter what country, ethnicity, or nationality they are- they are all suffering – we are all suffering.

And herein lies the catalyst for the shift that I hope will come with this crisis – people have been exposed to something that they’ve never been exposed to in such a heart wrenching, raw way before: each other’s humanity.

Shared suffering and collective empathy

Every person will know someone who had COVID-19; or who died from it. Every family has or knows a doctor or nurse battling on the front lines against a steadily advancing army, one with little mercy, scrambling for supplies and ventilators, suddenly seeing their colleague who was standing next to them yesterday struggling to breathe on an ER gurney the next.

Others are quarantined alone in their apartment, unable to exercise, to see the blue of the sky, devoid of human touch, wondering if the single life was really worth it in this new world. Some have lost 30% of their retirement savings, or had their pay cut by 30%. Others have been furloughed in their sixties, with little hope of getting a new job. Or had to shutter up their small business, which was barely scraping by as it was. Or maybe they just had a divorce or a horrible breakup and are trying to heal from that at the worst possible time, alone. Or they are trying to simultaneously homeschool, entertain, and comfort their kids who are home from school, as the little ones break into Mommy’s work room jingling toys and asking questions while she is on Zoom trying to be serious. They could also be caring for elderly parents, worrying every day that they might contract the virus and possible, die. Or maybe they have gotten Covid themselves, and have rushed to a hospital only to find out that they will not be getting a ventilator because the government wasn’t prepared for this crisis, not even a little bit, not even at all.

We are being asked to exercise empathy in a way that we have never had to before – and furthermore, to extend that empathy beyond our inner circles, our families and colleagues.  Every single person is struggling right now, in every country on the planet.

While social distancing may make us feel incredibly far away from others, in other ways the floodgates of empathy are opening. The dads who never understood why the moms complain about unpaid labor are finally seeing how hard it is to balance both work and kids. The low-income workers that are risking their lives to keep us fed have suddenly entered our frame of reference as heroes, and the reality of an unequal system where some can stay home and some still have to put themselves at risk has become even more apparent.

The nurses and doctors who may have been ignored or taken for granted are suddenly the most lauded people in the universe, recipients of standing ovations every night.

We are being asked to lean into open and honest conversations, because the pain is so apparent in the person across from us on FaceTime that, whereas at one point it may have felt rude to ask, “are you ok?”, now it feels rude to not ask.  This time, we don’t have the privilege of being outside of it all, or pretending that someone else’s pain doesn’t exist – because we’re suffering too. We’re all in this together.

We’re challenged every day not only to get business done and try to keep our businesses or jobs afloat in a sinking economy, but to ask our colleagues how they are doing, to really ask how they are doing. And more and more, people are not saying, oh I’m good, or spitting out some other pleasantry, they are opening up, they are telling the truth, they are letting people into how they feel because frankly, it’s too hard to hide. When one person opens up, then the other person is more likely to let down their guard. At another time, another day, another world sans pandemic, this conversation probably would have been a missed opportunity, a goal oriented transaction in a generally superficial world. Today, a connection is formed, a mutual respect is earned through mutual understanding. 

Our common humanity has been exposed, and I am praying that we don’t decide to cover it up again. Because in the rawness, the vulnerability, the fear, the pain and anxiety, the loneliness, there is something so real and so human that has always been lingering below the surface that has, frankly, been begging to come out. I see it in my Zoom calls with different people across the world, ones where we might have exchanged small talk before jumping into business without sharing anything too personal, whereas now when I say how are you, it is like they breathe a sigh of relief, someone actually cares how I am, and isn’t just asking to be polite. And they tell me, my kids are home from school, I don’t know if my father has Covid and there are no tests available, my in-laws lost their retirement and are moving in with me. And I’m honest too, things have been really freaking hard.

Brené Brown says, “[l]eaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” And yet, most leaders still didn’t attend to feelings. And it was easy enough to try to ignore their existence. Today, ignoring those feelings as a leader not only affects the behavior of employees, it affects how everyone sees you as a leader. And for the ones who don’t acknowledge how hard things are right now, who don’t recognize the tangled jumble of emotions that attack each and every one of us every day without mercy, this leader will quickly be revealed as a fraud.

Additionally, people’s emotional literacy is growing; those people who have never been in touch with their emotions are finally realizing that they have them. Their emotional range is expanding because it has to, or their relationships will not survive. We typically don’t challenge people to go deeper emotionally – in a capitalist world, we have escaped this necessity. 

We are also no longer so busy, so consumed by birthdays and meetings and dinners and sports, that we can continually distract ourselves from our emotions. Now, with little to do, we are forced to confront them, and each other.

How many couples are there who have been together for years, but don’t really know each other because their lives are so busy between work and friends and activities? 

Today is offering something to those of us who have been fortunate enough not to contract the virus something that has always seemed in short supply – time. 

Use that time not to binge on Netflix, but to sit down and go through the NYTimes 36 questions to fall in love, do exercises by the Gottmans, learn about the biggest fears and wildest dreams of your partner. This will create a bond and help you to get to know each other in a way that will underpin your relationship for the rest of your life.

In all of this, you also may find out you were living a relationship based not upon common values, but upon convenience. And though that is extremely difficult to recognize, especially when you love someone, it is better to know now. 

Or maybe you are the type of person who usually dates a million people at the same time, but now that’s too risky and you’re being forced to choose just one, for your and their safety. That could be a good thing. Focus on them, get to know them, maybe just maybe you can get close to someone for once instead of always holding yourself at a distance.

People are also recognizing the pain that those who are single and live alone might feel even in the absence of a global pandemic. My friend who lives upstairs has sisters who are all married and live far away. For the first time, she was invited to a birthday dance party over zoom. She was elated. Never before had the possibility of her attending virtually been considered. “They finally understand what it’s like for me to be alone,” she told me.

We are also being forced to try to lift each other up in a time where we aren’t doing so well ourselves. This is challenging, but it is by reaching out, facetiming when you are sans makeup and hair looking scary, doing a dance video together remotely, or even falling asleep together over Facetime that will make both of you feel better. 

It’s why I’ve designed on online leadership course for women where they can meet virtually every week in person rather than just consume content on their own, so as to gain the connection and support from each other that we are all craving.

People kill each other for many reasons, but one is that they have demeaned or ignored our common humanity. And through this, they have valued the lives of their own group as more valuable than that of others.

Hopefully the way that the world is experiencing this together will show people that we all come from the same thread; our humanity is universal. 

My hope is that the next time a warmonger tries to whip us into the belief that we are somehow irreconcilably different, we will remember the truth that COVID exposed: that we are one and the same.

And hopefully, each of us will recognize that life is not a given, but a gift. With that, can we place human life at a higher premium? Can we stop jumping into war so quickly, and cease drone strikes on vulnerable populations? Stopping the virus is an extremely difficult task, but stopping the endless violence between other people and other countries is something that our governments and us as citizens can control. My hope is that this experience will make us see those from other places not as worth killing, but as worth saving. 

Samantha Karlin

Samantha Karlin

Samantha Karlin is the founder of Empower Global. She works with organizations to help them better recruit, retain, and advance women and diverse talent, and does trainings for women on empowerment and public speaking. She also does one on one coaching with women on confidence, leadership, and communication. Samantha also leads North America, South America and European partnerships for Equal Reality, a virtual reality company focused on trainings for Diversity and Inclusion. She facilitates workshops on unconscious bias, inclusive leadership, preventing sexual harassment, and male allyship, among others. She speaks all over the world about gender issues, and is a TedX speaker.

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