We are of course in an Apocalyptic movie from which we will all wake up presently.
Either that or calamity will be a great educator. How do we re-imagine ourselves in this new reality; performing the conjuring trick of relating to ourselves and public space with dazed re-orientation?
Think on the bright side. A thousand theses will perhaps be written on how there was a retreat from globalisation as individualised society realised we were closely entwined and we were plunged into cyberspace. This has been a great leveller. Shaking hands will never feel the same again!
What a stress test this is; a test of the resilience of the human spirit and of local communities. Night after night, as day follows day, we have heard announcements and a whirlwind of news that send us reeling. A global virus had sprung from nowhere to keep us contained in our homes and swiftly began reorienting our relationship to government, to the outside world and to each other.
Familiar life folded; the public world shrunk and we were left with our private persona framed with a stark reminder that what we are in relationship is what we are. Safe certainties, lazy assumptions and well-grounded expectations have been sent packing. None of us will forget where we were and what life was for us before the Covid bomb went off across the globe. The silent bio terrorist has been unleashed. Henceforth we will see everything with 2020 vision – BC (Before Covid) or AC.
History offers some guide as to how events can upend society with dazed rapidity. In his account of the ‘World Crisis’, Winston Churchill wrote about how Cabinet deliberations of the bewildering lead up to the First World War quickly eclipsed struggles in Ireland: “The Parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall on the map of Europe”. [i] Amazingly even Brexit has been eclipsed!
In a later conflict, during the Blitz, Winston Churchill’s cabinet was heartened to witness altruism, compassion and generosity of spirit and action. In the wake of profound de-stabilisation, will society revert – revert to the ‘me, me, me – get, get, culture’ that is the sworn enemy of community spirit?
People do get through these things and life returns to normal – except that a hundred years ago in the wake both of Spanish flu and global war, there was a new normal. In the wake of the lethal pandemic of Black Death, medieval society experienced transformations that led to early modernity.
As far as the honourable discipline of sociology is concerned, faced with the social imaginary that feels bewilderingly new, bewilderingly strange, there will be much to ponder and probe about:
- The readiness of an entire population to embrace conformity
- An experiment in mass incarceration
- Dystopian fantasies made flesh
- The collapse of the public space into the virtual world where there is contact but no touch
- Distance as an organising theme – closing borders, social distancing but virtual connectivity
In my own area of interest, what might be termed a sociology of value – even those that have seem to have little value; especially those that seem to have less worth.[ii] Our social experience is shaped by the value society places on us. It became clear that those who keep our country ticking over, the low income people who regularly go unnoticed because they matter less are the really vital people, the ones doing the crucial jobs we need. This is personal and interpersonal as well as social. We hear sad stories of death and dying without loved ones as it matters that we need to feel that we matter If hope is defined by the things worth working for, when we emerge from our holes, can we build a very different value system, not based on money that has dubious value but on the value of people and the value of our staggeringly beautiful world we lost sight of.
Will we sink under the weight of the present distress? Or will we come to a new time.
It is early; far too early to forecast what shape that takes. For now we see dramatic changes to our lives. This is not going to be a two-week shut down and then everything will be ok. Mentally it is challenging for populations to be stuck at home. Keeping people’s spirits up is one thing. How do households handle getting on everyone’s nerves without a spike in domestic violence?
Societies are built from a number of systems; many of which were already creaking at the edges. The strain on some of these could prove overwhelming. Trust in the kind of institutions that are vital to a mature and secure democracy had fallen low in popular estimation. Now the expert has returned.
To be sure there are many dangers toils and snares we will have come in getting through this. Pandemics tend to magnify existing inequalities rather than flatten them. Psychological trauma from coronavirus will happen. As the American Psychology Association observes in a survey of Hong Kong residents about SARS, nearly two-thirds expressed helplessness; nearly half said their mental health had severely or moderately deteriorated because of the epidemic. When trauma goes unaddressed, symptoms can appear and worsen over time. In this case, unaddressed trauma from quarantines and social isolation, feeling one’s own life is in danger, illness, or the loss of a loved one to coronavirus could have public health repercussions that reverberate for years. Will nations stay closed? Will touch become taboo? Will we become afraid of other humans? What will become of restaurants?
Will we be subject to a mass form of OCD, as none of us will be able to stop washing our hands?
Could Covid take us to where we should be? This too is in our hands.
For crisis moments also present opportunity: amongst them now are more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarization and revived appreciation for the outdoors, denied us for a while.
What if Covid-19 permanently shifted attitudes to the acceptability of big changes in society? 2020 was supposed to be the year when environmental concern reached a tipping point to take us to the Glasgow COP 26 conference. Pollution came down for a brief moment. You can see Beijing again!
What if Covid-19 gave a new impetus to resolving conflicts, faced with a common enemy that was no respecter of persons and jumped national borders as quickly as they were closed?
What if Covid-19 permanently shifted working patterns as companies forced to embrace remote working by the pandemic discovered that their employees could work at home just as well and so what was the point of coming into the office anyway? Will we ask if we really do need to do a task face to face with others? Will virtual Government and virtual everything come at last to have its day?
What if Covid-19 obliged us to take far more seriously the social impact of disconnection and isolation and obliged State, markets and civil society all to take this more seriously as a vital strategic issue? (The connection between social relationships and health is often overlooked. We protected older people from the virus but ended up cutting them off from the very thing that’s crucial to their well-being). The task of living peacefully and meaningfully together was way over-due for a re-think.
What if Covid-19 encouraged intergenerational connection: older people to ramp up ways to stay in touch and younger offspring to check in with grandparents and other older people in their lives?
What if Covid-19 produced a renewal of society as community solutions became a marked feature of a new social landscape? What if Covid-19 eroded escalating political and cultural polarization we had been trapped in and helped change course toward greater solidarity?
What if Covid-19 gave society a powerful shake-up? We had heard it said that modernity had produced a generation or three that were at least comfortable in material terms and knew how the world worked. A minute enemy we can’t even see upended our wealthy and powerful global society.
What if Covid-19 taught us that we are not in control? What a frightening thought for a risk society!
This is a new way of being-in-the-world and it utterly compromises the way we were; and the only way to be that we knew about. Fragility arrived from nowhere, bringing in its wake heartrending personal stories but a new appreciation of our inter-dependency and sense of being linked to others.
[i] Churchill, W. (2007) The World Crisis London: Penguin p95
[ii] Steed,C. D (2016) A Question of Worth London: Tauris
Dr Christopher Steed is a Writer, Counsellor and Educator.