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Coronavirus: The perfect social storm

In order to live in concert with each other we devise gestures such as hand-shakes

By Andonis Vassiliades

The new coronavirus, Covid-19, has now spiralled out of control into a global pandemic.

It is the greatest challenge to world order in memory. Economies are taking a severe hit and are heading for a collapse. Businesses, industries, commerce and financial institutions are crumbling under the unprecedented economic meltdown. Millions of people worldwide will be left jobless. Countries around the world are scrambling to stop the contagion by imposing travel bans and putting millions of people under lockdown.

The virus has challenged our taken for granted assumptions of an absolute social order.  It has brought home the social psychological proposition that the social world we live in is fragile, blurred and negotiable.

In order to live in concert with each other we devise gestures such as close proximity, hand-shakes, a kiss on the cheek or some other form of touch to emphasise familiarity.  We are deeply and firmly social beings. We define our existence and social world through social interaction. And here lies the irony in current efforts to stop the contagion.

Social distancing (i.e. keeping ourselves away from others) has by and large been a negative term used to denote a means to discriminate against particular cultures, religions, race, gender, disability etc. by marginalising those populations as a threat and somewhat below par. Social distancing is a social boundary between us and them. In keeping the contagion at bay or reducing the speed of infection, social distancing has now become a perverse necessity and the primary means to keeping people asunder by intentionally opting out of social interaction. What this lack of social interaction by distancing ourselves from others may do to our perceptions of particular populations, our habits, rules and values and how they unfold is hard to predict.

Societies will need to adjust to a serious disruption in the workplace and social encounters in general. In particular individuals will experience high levels of alienation. They will be out of the market due to severe unemployment as businesses and factories run down for lack of liquidity and falling demand for goods and services.

This situation calls for governments to stop disengaging from each other and start realising that global problems require global responses. They need to stop the nationalist fervour and the warmongering (e.g. US sanctions on Iran) and begin collaborating and assisting each other to deal with the global threat. They need to adopt a liberal Keynesian approach to economic principles. This calls for direct intervention and substantial investment in health, public works and the private sector to re-energise national and global economies and maintain a viable economic structure for the welfare of their people.

In this formula the role of the private sector and particularly banks becomes paramount. They need to act with a social conscience and stop behaving as though they exist only for profit and benefits for the privileged few and shareholders.  Financial institutions must provide funding and assistance to consumers and businesses to manage their financial needs and survive the immediate and long-term dilapidating effects of the crisis. Governments and private corporations should take a leaf out of Richard Titmuss’ The Gift Relationship. A good measure of altruism may assist to bind people and communities together.

Societies need to consider how to deal with challenges and stresses which may continue well after the virus. In particular, how they care for particular sections of the population who may continue to be at high risk. Case-fatalities amongst those aged 60 plus (and others with chronic medical conditions) will continue to be severe and will require a disproportionate amount of care and resources in comparison to other groups.

On the other side of the spectrum, the health burden of newborn babies with infectious disease is one to prepare for. Viral infections in pregnancy constitute one of the most prevalent causes of maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality. Infections in babies may arise transplacentally, perinatally or postnatally. Around 360,000 babies are born each day across the globe which means more than 130 million a year. If transmission of the coronavirus from mother to baby is established (as it happens with other viruses e.g. influenza and HIV) the scale of the task ahead may prove taxing. Sadly, the first confirmed case of a possible mother to baby transmission was reported only days ago in a London hospital. Whilst medical teams battle to understand the coronavirus, its transmission and how it mutates and metamorphoses, societies must err on the side of caution and set in motion preparations to be ready for the unexpected challenges that may lie ahead.

As the social consequences of the coronavirus start hitting hard, the risk of a social contagion of fear, exclusion, grab-and-run and a broader spectrum of social unrest and disorder is real. This is a stage of a widespread collapse in social discipline and order. Individuals stop respecting and exercising acceptable normative expectations towards others. Norms and values governing behaviour may become weakened by a more personal and atavistic sense of justice and survival of the fittest.

Two principles can help restrain the contagion and keep behaviour under some social and moral control: personal and social responsibility. Individuals must apply personal responsibility by protecting themselves, following advice and adhering to a regime of personal hygiene. They must also be socially responsible by being willing to sacrifice personal freedoms for the protection and wellbeing of others.

As always at times of distress, the social antidote is hope. The human spirit always strives for survival in the face of adversity and has a capacity to spring up where it is least expected. Whether this spirit emerges in the Italian piazza in an impromptu expression of solidarity by singing together or shows up across Europe in general in the form of community support for the hard pressed health workers and those infected, one thing is certain.  After the virus and its effects have taken their costly toll, the human spirit will rise again to moderate the pain and gradually create a new momentum for the construction and reconstruction of the fundamental pillars of a civic society.

Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor

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