Empathy Must Be At The Heart Of All New Guidelines And Policies In Future

We need to frame better emergency responses with lessons from the current pandemic

C. Balaji Updated: Apr 22, 2020 13:33:00 IST
Empathy Must Be At The Heart Of All New Guidelines And Policies In Future Exodus in the time of pandemic (Image used for representative purposes only.)

As this global pandemic unfolds, in real time, we watch with horror the destruction and damages COVID-19 leaves in its path, not to mention the unimaginable scale of human suffering.

While large sections of the population in India struggled in some way or other, the socially vulnerable groups were the most profoundly affected. Out of sheer panic and desperation, millions of migrant labourers started fleeing to reach home and find safety with their families, far away from the big cities to India’s remotest villages. Tragically, more than 20 of them died on the way. The National Commission for Women (NCW) registered a disturbing rise in complaints of domestic violence and termed it "only tip of the iceberg". Child abuse was also on the rise. Patients with chronic illnesses, already living on the edge, were pushed further to danger zones.

Frontline medical staff are faced with the wrath of the very communities they have been serving, not to speak of exposure to the infection. Other responders like police, sanitation staff, civil society volunteers, rural change agents such as Anganwadi and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) have been risking their lives to ensure an effective lockdown. What happens to them in such a scenario? Who secures their life and safety?

In my experience of working to mitigate emergencies for the past 20 years, I have found that the most vulnerable are affected to a greater degree and severity, in any disaster situation. This is both on account of disasters as well as due to secondary incidents.

In my view, it is critical to monitor the negative fallouts from initial decisions, and start remedial measures to minimize suffering. Any failure to do so may result in damages, which could hurt the genuine efforts. There are global examples, in this context, that we can glean lessons from—relaxing eligibility for ration cards, setting up contact points to report abuse, paying for hotel costs of women who suffer violence and cash transfers for the poorest of the poor. These examples could be contextualized to this current situation wherever possible. We need fresh policy and guidelines for emergency responses, flowing from the learnings of the current crises so our preparedness for the future is bolstered.

care-today_042220125025.jpegAn essentials distribution effort by Care Today in partnership with ActionAid (Photo courtesy C. Balaji)

  • Firstly, the voices of the vulnerable need be heard, and they must be given the opportunity to become partners in decision-making and play an active role in the future. All emergency responses need to factor in, on a primary level, the course of action so that these groups are safeguarded. Every frontline responder needs to be protected with appropriate gear and insurance so they return to their families safe after work.
  • Technological solutions may be used to speed up awareness, relief, sanitization and community engagement. But humanizing an emergency response is critical and can be ensured by bringing vulnerable communities and frontline responders to the centre of the decision-making process. While this is a collective responsibility of society at large, the government needs to play a greater role, through suitable policy and well-directed actions. Also, in the future, adequate investments need to be made to train communities, establish effective systems for early incident analysis, multi-department response framework with effective command and control especially for multi-state or national disasters.
  • During the current pandemic and isolation in India, society as a whole raised to the challenge: Organizations and individuals served cooked meals to the needy, established community kitchens, distributed dry rations and started shelters for migrants. Police, in some locations, enquired for the safety of previous domestic violence complainants and donated blood, governments reassured the migrants, some states and NGOs started call centres for complaints and counselling, pharmacies delivered critical care medicines. Not to mention any number of stories of heroic individuals who displayed exemplary empathy and compassion.

However, had the initial response factored in some of these fallouts, the unnecessary crises and tragic events could have been avoided. Also, driven by humanitarian values, responsible civil society proactively resolved many messy situations arising out of the hurried announcements. This needs to be commended and supported.

In the near future, the focus should be broadened and driven by a clear understanding that many disadvantaged, underprivileged groups are pushed into danger and are compelled to seek support not out of their choice, but due to the compulsions and consequences of actions taken without their concerns in view. And that they need as much protection, as anybody else.


C. Balaji, executive director, Care Today Fund, is a disaster management expert with 20 years of experience in humanitarian response.
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