Historically (again), it’s worth acknowledging that periods of epidemic or pandemic, such as COVID-19, have often been intertwined with enormous and lasting social changes. Loose threads in the fabric of society tear open, revealing issues of which many of us were not entirely aware. Over the past few months, we’ve seen several of these, including poor quality profit-driven elder care, insufficient supports for poorer and homeless people, issues of racialized injustice bubbling over, and all this straining available mental health supports. As Professor emeritus Frank M. Snowden of the History of Medicine at Yale states: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”
Epidemics are levellers in the sense that the virus doesn’t care about your income and anyone can become ill; however, what we’ve seen in Ontario and Toronto is that those living in institutional contexts and in poorer neighbourhoods have had much higher incidents of coronavirus infection and death. As History Professor Patrick Zylberman said of the Spanish flu epidemic, “The virus might well have behaved ‘democratically,’ but the society it attacked was hardly egalitarian.”
So what kinds of positive changes might we see in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Professor Alexandre White of Johns Hopkins states: “It’s my hope that we can see how public health and socioeconomic disparities are widening as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. Ideally, this will lead us to create better systems in the future.”
Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg of NYU suggests that the pandemic’s force in pulling us together as communities to deal with the pandemic may have lasting positive impact. “The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism…We’re now seeing that market-based models for social organization fail, catastrophically, as self-seeking behaviours (from Trump down) makes this crisis so much more dangerous than it needed to be.”
Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, suggests that in the best case scenario “the pandemic will force society to accept restraint on mass consumer culture as a reasonable price to pay to defend ourselves against future contagions and climate disasters alike…In theory, we could decide to shrink our industrial footprint and conserve wildlife habitat, so that animal microbes stay in animals’ bodies.” She finds it more likely, however, that we will instead instill more palatable changes, such as universal basic income, paid sick leave, and a more communal lifestyle.
As Professor Snowden says, “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.”
COVID-19 is shaking us up, but along with the bad, maybe some good can come from this. Let’s stop thinking about going “back to normal” and instead focus on hope and work towards a better future.
© Catherine Jenkins 2020 all rights reserved