The scale and rapidity of the global, national and local responses to the impact of COVID-19 are daunting, making it risky to comment in real-time. It is difficult to grasp all the fast-moving implications for societies as the crisis develops. A considered sociological critique will have to wait until the implications play out post-crisis. Still, the current unfolding of medical, economic and social consequences offer a unique insight into ‘sociology in action’.
Some sociologists have already pointed out how the COVID-19 pandemic resembles a real-life breaching experiment. The epidemic is interrupting the regular social order, such that any responses to the pandemic present new and novel challenges to the taken for granted ‘rules’ that often invisibly structure social interaction and order. At an individual level, we are now obliged to consider the ethical implications of how behaviours will impact others. Breaching the new social isolation norm is portrayed as a moral dereliction that will put others at risk – see the clip of a professor of infectious disease modelling at LSHTM which has gone viral (!). In this he invokes our individual responsibility to change from engaging in behaviours aimed at avoiding personal risk to one where we assume we are contaminated and adjust our activities to ensure we do not infect others.
At play within this simple proposition is a critical tension. Over the last few decades governments in the UK have put their faith in laissez-faire economics and free-market capitalism, with a stress on the individual as a responsible and free agent. Now in this crisis pandemic moment, these atomistic individuals are suddenly being asked to remember their collective responsibilities to the broader community and society. It is no wonder that many failed to take their new shared responsibilities seriously and still exercised their individual ‘right’ to go to bars and gyms until these were shut. And for many days, the government sent mixed messages, advising people to avoid bars and public venues, while allowing these places to remain open. When they finally acted to close bars and other meeting places, it is also no surprise that some resisted, with many still enjoying one final night out.
This tension between the individual and the collective plays out in many ways that make the calibration of risks to self and others impossible to judge. Thus, I may want to take exercise, to get out of the house, and keep fit by riding my bike. But this then brings with it a whole new set of questions. Riding a bike alone presents a low risk of infection to me, but what if I fall off my bike on a slippery corner and need to go to the hospital? This would then add needlessly to a health service that may already be overstretched. My individual desire to maintain fitness then risks the collective provision of health services. Is it acceptable to go for a bike ride in a group? If so, how is social distancing maintained, and importantly, what will the public perception be of people out enjoying themselves on bikes while others are dying on trolleys in corridors? Will this be regarded as a transgression against the new pandemic status quo – but this is another problem because there is no new status quo…yet! It is sociologically interesting that too little risk aversion is seen as irresponsible, (this is the core of nudge theory). Still, in the face of the pandemic, we also see risk aversion being frowned upon by some, such as the crowds of British holidaymakers ignoring the lockdown in Spain.
The atomised individual, neoliberal citizen, also has to defend against over-caution: moral adequacy relies on being appropriately, but not excessively cautious. Early in the epidemic, there were memes about the absurdities of stockpiling with many absurd commentators claiming that coronavirus was a hype. What looks like overreaction only a few days ago now seems like a catastrophic under-reaction.
While some of us are washing our hands, it is a well to remember that hygiene rules are never, of course, just about germs: they are enactments of the social. They are about representing and reproducing the social order. As some older citizens are behaving in ‘risk hardy’ ways, by failing to physically distance, others are distributing videos of communal singing from Italian balconies or heartwarming tales of city neighbourhoods distributing fliers offering help. How we enact community (real or imagined) is now up for grabs. Whether post-epidemic, the virtual worlds of WhatsApp groups or Twitter will give way to new communities and collectives remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen if COVID-19 will also kill, or at least, tame laissez-faire economics and free-market capitalism. As even right-wing governments envisage paying people to not work, ideas such as universal social wages appear possible, rather than radical.
Epidemics also quickly reveal the fault lines of workplace relations. Businesses and, managers have struggled to offset risks to workers’ health and productivity, with varying impacts of the health and livelihoods of workers. Some universities, for instance, moved very quickly to shut down campuses, but others were slower to react. In less secure workplaces, and for those on zero-hours contracts, there are pressures on workers to self-isolate if symptomatic. But it is not clear how they will be able to do this with no pay. The government’s recent package of support is welcome, but there are still significant gaps in protecting the most vulnerable in society.
There is a clear short-term economic benefit to employers maintaining ‘business as usual’ for as long as possible, but this will result in more deaths and more pressure on the NHS. The tensions between the health of capitalism and the health of people have barely been raised in public discourse. But a reckoning is fast approaching when these two will catastrophically collide. However, issues of personal and corporate responsibility of employers to the employee are likely to be fundamentally altered by these new and novel iterations of risk and responsibility.
These are just some of the initial and immediate sociological issues and concerns raised by COVID-19. In the weeks and months that come, these will only multiply and grow, much like COVID-19 itself. It is imperative that we continue to build a sociological critique of these processes, as there is one certainty in all of this, and that is we won’t be ‘going back to normal’ once it’s all over…