Photo: Authors own

What happens next, once the COVID-19 pandemic is over? All pandemics subside at some point.  Either the virus mutates into a less harmful form, or mass vaccination raises overall immunity and so on.  They do come to an end.  But a society that has experienced a pandemic is never quite the same again.  The toll it takes on multiple levels on social systems, individual biographies, economies, and accepted ways of living means that pre-pandemic life slips into being a previous historical era.

Pandemics and plagues are underappreciated agents of societal change.  In various disciplines from sociology to history the big engines of history, (to paraphrase Marx and Hegel), are the activities of humans and the societies and economies they create.  History is cast as the outcome solely of what people do. Nature and natural processes are recognised but relegated to secondary minor status or a passing mention.

But reading history as a series of pandemics reveals the critical role they can play.  Their agency in effecting change lies in amplifying and accelerating existing social and historical trends. They weave into the social, the economic and the cultural, further destabilising emerging fault lines and bringing to light deep social problems. How these issues are addressed in turn depends on the agency of social and political actors.

Take one example to illustrate this point.  The Black Death is accredited with wholesale transformations in a variety of spheres from European art, medicine, religious belief, and commerce.  The one change that is agreed on by historians is that the Black Death hastened the end (albeit unevenly and with localised differences) of feudalism and serfdom across Medieval Europe. The labour shortages that followed the high death rate gave the peasantry a strong bargaining position.  It allowed them not to gain so much economically but to challenge age-old restrictions that regulated virtually all aspects of their lives. Their shift away to brightly coloured clothing away from dull drab costume represented one of the freedoms they gained.

So, what changes could follow the COVID-19 pandemic?

Optimistically, we could witness deep-seated and enduring inequalities finally being addressed.  The pandemic highlighted several, often intersecting, inequalities.  The higher death and hospitalisation rates evident among people of colour and working-class people further exposed the oft-hidden injuries of poverty and racism.  The Black Lives Matter movement galvanised people globally to take to the streets against not just individual acts of racism but against its systemic and structural core.

We are also witnessing a change in the relationship between state and citizen. Governments across Europe and America diverted billions in state spending towards supporting ordinary citizens, an act that flew in the face of neoliberal orthodoxy.  The much denied “magic money tree” does exist (in fact it always existed).  Evidence of its existence begins to destabilise the ideas underpinning the insistence that austerity is a necessary and legitimate response to economic and social problems. State spending is back with one of the economic shibboleths of recent decades that state spending is inherently evil now looking a tad shaky.  Though, as Phil at a Very Public Sociologist has argued that spending is more about shoring up existing class relations than challenging them.

To be clear, I am not arguing here that an age of utopian solidarity will be ushered in as a global social and political response to the pandemic.  Rather than the management of the pandemic, the response that emphasised we are all in it together (albeit problematically), has pushed against the atomising ideologies of individualist neoliberalism. This change has challenged a remarkably robust and insistent austerity orthodoxy.  A marker has therefore been laid down that we need to, following Honneth, recognise the value, qualities and capabilities of others, developing deeper and longer chains of social solidarity.

Perhaps a small step in moving away from neoliberalism of the last forty years could be occurring?

It is hard to call the future.  What can be said is that pandemics are a stimulus for change, they can hasten existing trends and work on social faultlines.  But as Adorno always warned, the resolution of social problems is not always positive.  It depends on who wins the ideological and other debates and battles that will occur over the next few years.

We need to take the transformative power of pandemics seriously.  It is a task that medical sociologists should be at the forefront of, demonstrating that the sub-discipline has something direct and relevant to say about macro-level social change. This moment in time may be a brief opportunity to pause and see what needs to be done to build a more progressive fairer society.