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The Social Impact of Covid-19

The World Health Organisation has declared Covid-19 a ‘pandemic’. The crisis unfolding across the world has caused governments to implement urgent and exceptional measures to stop the spread.

As the majority of us self-isolate at home, it can be difficult to see the positive amidst the chaos. Many of us may be wondering whether life will ever return to how it was before.

The future may seem uncertain. However, the reassuring fact is that, particularly in times of crisis, the potential for opportunity and positive change is immense. After all, the synergy between epidemics and  longer-term social, political and cultural consequences has been well documented. 

What effect is the Covid-19 epidemic having on social relations? And how will it affect future social developments? 

What makes this particular epidemic unique is its indiscriminate nature. We are all in the same boat. The Coronavirus is not simply limited to the elderly, or those with underlying health conditions. We are all at risk of falling ill. 

But it seems like a silver lining might arise from this rather grim situation. Because, when faced with a shared external threat, we begin to look past our differences. We recognise our linked fate and, as a result, we’re more likely to invest in each other’s well-being. We’re more prone to making individual sacrifices for the common good. This interdependence between individuals and across groups is what Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg refers to as ‘social solidarity’. 

Western society has generally functioned on a highly individualised, capitalist agenda. It has presented human life as an individual pursuit of success and happiness. Toilet roll hoarding and disregarding social distancing rules are examples of individualist behaviors that have heightened the crisis’ severity. The public has obviously heavily chastised these behaviors. But their importance should not go unnoticed, as they have highlighted something fundamental. How we must cooperate, as a cohesive society, in order to overcome the crisis. And for this reason, according to Kbinenberg, this pandemic might just mark ‘the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism’.

Empty shelves in UK supermarket as a result of panic buying

Social solidarity motivates us to promote public health for the greater good, not just our own personal security. Therefore, it is an essential tool for combating infectious diseases. We can already see examples of this across the UK. For instance, with resurgence of local communities and networks of dependence. Those same human networks which we had seemingly lost to the dominance of technology dictating our modern day social interactions- from social media to self-checkout machines in local supermarkets.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, more than 1,000 grassroot volunteer groups have been set up across the UK to help those self-isolating. An umbrella organisation – Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK – is steering the network, but each group is independent. The organisation has created guidelines advising how you can help your local community. For example, offering to pick up shopping or deliver medicines or other essential items to the most vulnerable. 

What’s the difference between traditional charities and the new mutual aid groups spreading across the globe?

Sigal Samuel notes there’s a subtle difference. While both might be doing the same thing — i.e. getting supplies to people who need it — what distinguishes them is the framing philosophy. A traditional charity pays staff members to give support to recipients; there’s a giver and a receiver. But mutual aid is an entirely voluntary exchange among equals based on the assumption that everyone has something to offer. This most certainly signals a positive move away from individualistic behaviours towards a collective responsibility. 

While communities are displaying their desire to come together for those in need, they also must be responsible. Adhering to social distancing measures is essential. To spread the word, volunteers have been using old school methods. They’ve been pinning posters around neighborhoods. Or posting leaflets through doors, encouraging anyone who needs help to make contact by phone. Or even leaving supplies on doorsteps. However, these approaches are somewhat limited.

An example of leaflets being put through doors offering assistance to local vulnerable people

A more far reaching method has been to mobilise through use of online resources. As many as 2.5 million people have signed up to help, mostly through Facebook pages. Paradoxically, the online technology we hounded for creating social distance and destroying community connections, is now helping us. To the point that it has played a key role in restoring just that in a time of crisis. For instance, data from app Next-door, which connects those who live in the same area, shows an increase by 15 times of local support groups. Compared to just a week ago!

As well as being a main mobiliser for community support action, the internet has also allowed for sharing of other services. Services that mutual aid organisations may not be able to offer. People are sharing not just material things, but wisdom and information. For instance, how to make your own homemade mask and online support for coping with the mental strain of self-isolation.

Social media can be used to combat loneliness, and to provide social connection during self-isolation. Video calling apps like HouseParty, FaceTime and Zoom can help to provide a lifeline to the outside world.

What does the future hold for our social relations as a result of this global crisis?

All in all, humans are profoundly social creatures. This deep-rooted desire we have to be around, and help one another, persists even in uncertain times. Hopefully, on the other side of the crisis we’ll discover a heightened sense of compassion. A newfound impulse to support for our fellow beings. Particularly those local to us who we seem to have lost connection with in recent years.

The crisis is making us understand the internet can be a driving force for good. Because it has helped us take positive steps to combat the social issues caused by the pandemic. But this isn’t to say that, as a society, we should become further dependent on technology for social interaction. Sonia Shah, author of ‘Pandemic: Tracking Contagions From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond’, believes the opposite may occur. The generation of young people forced into seclusion might, in fact, reshape the culture around an appreciation for communal life.

With this in mind, perhaps we can use this time with our devices to rethink. Specifically, to rethink the kinds of community we can create through them. Sherry Turkle, author of ‘Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age’ certainly thinks so. And we agree, wholeheartedly.

Could our society harness an opportunity for positive change from what just now appears to be a rather desperate situation? The potential is definitely there. So much that Klinenberg believes that, when this ends, “we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods – for health, especially – and public services”. Covid-19 will be added to the list of historical public health crises: The Black Death, Cholera, Spanish flu and SARS. And just like them, it will become part of our collective memory. But at the moment, it has the potential to reshape society. In the short-term certainly, but also for the long run. Let that give us hope!

Looking for ways to help during the coronavirus crisis? Check out The Boiler House Blog for Ways to Offer Help While Staying at Home During Lockdown.

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