CONTAGION – A TESTING TIME
The coronavirus pandemic is an unusual period for all of us. We are facing fear and uncertainty about our and our close ones’ health, about the job and the future. Some of us are facing loss of our loved ones. We had to change our daily routines, reorganise our work, learning and looking after children. We do not know when everything comes back to normal, or whether this ‘normal’ that we used to know will ever come back. We are not able to predict how the situation will develop.
In these difficult times, we have asked scientists from the University of Wrocław to share with us how they look at the situation from their scientific perspective. Below, we present the feuilleton by Dr hab. Iwona Taranowicz from the Institute of Sociology (t/n ‘Dr hab.’ – Polish equivalent of post-doctoral academic degree).
It is a hot, sunny day. I am looking at the flowing Oder and at a street situated just by the river. Empty. An abundance of people once walking, jogging, cycling, is now gone. The tapping sound of Nordic walking sticks cannot be heard any more. Instead, on the balconies of my building, there is a hustle. Some people are washing their windows, putting the washing out, cleaning their railings, some are just sitting and catching some rays. I am looking at all this while speaking with my neighbour who is wondering what else needs to be done in her flat. Contrary to all appearances, people do not like idleness. They need some pastime. A friend of mine, who is a cycling aficionado, decided to go to a forest, knowing from experience that it is a quiet and solitary place. He was mistaken big time, though. In an usually deserted place, he met a crowd of people. Another friend of mine gets constantly irritated because of endless noise outside the window caused by crying children and talking parents on the school playground, which distracts him from working.
Life goes on as usual, but there are plenty of signs around that remind us that it is not as usual. Shop assistants in the nearby shops attend to me from behind a protective glass window and I have to pay everywhere by card only. In the baker’s, there is only one customer and the other ones are waiting outside, at least a meter apart from each other. Pharmacists’ faces are hidden behind a protective mask. In the nearby supermarket, some of the shelves are empty, and on the Rossman’s door, there is a note informing about the lack of disinfection liquids.
‘Coronavirus’ is a word that everyone already knows. In its shadow, life goes on in a tense wait. The epidemic has already started but it is just a beginning and no one knows what it will bring. As every unexpected event, this means a crisis of social life. Coming back to the orderly reality requires a scapegoat whom we can blame for the current situation. Usually, this scapegoat were foreigners, the poor and the excluded. In 1832, cholera killed 100 thousand people in France. Order that was disrupted by the epidemic was restored when the proliferation of the disease was connected with an undue population density, which was connected with promiscuity of the poor. But we are still at the outset. And we are still shocked. We cannot believe that such scenarios are possible in a world that is hygienic and under our control. News from Italy and Spain frighten. The fear appears. But search for the guilty ones has not started yet and, probably, will never happen. There will be fight for domination among different coronavirus-wise narratives. The winner will point out the guilty ones that are responsible for the epidemic and its extend. The symbolic space is still an undervalued battlefield for power. So far, its place is occupied by conspiracy theories, which always appear in situations of risk, according to which the virus was slipped out of a secret laboratory. The government should not be trusted as it surely conceals the fact that the situation is much worse than it is portrayed. Mainly, it is because the government, indeed, often does not say the whole truth in order not to cause panic. A reaction of centres of power is crucial, a state of risk requires existence of a decision-making centre that is also a source of information, it requires quick and firm actions, and unambiguous messages to the people within a risk zone. Containing panic is equally important as containing epidemic. Panic means allowing our emotions to speak, and they are not good advisors in such situations. Authoritarian powers handle challenges brought by epidemiological situations better. They have resources that allow them to have a full control over following the rules that are aimed at containing virus proliferation. In the citizens-authorities relation, more important is citizens’ trust towards those in power that the situation is under their control and that the state of safety will be regained. If not, bottom-up initiatives appear, in which people take the matters into their own hands. In many other situations, it is quite a good and effective solution, but not necessarily in case of an epidemic, and definitely not in case of a panic.
The coronavirus has brought not only an epidemiological risk. It is spreading in a world of global economic connections, mass tourism, migration, showing how strongly we all are dependent on each other, despite borders. Closure of shopping centres, restaurants, cinemas, etc. for a vast number of people means lack of income, sometimes job loss, and soon lack of livelihood. The epidemic has drastically revealed all the weaknesses and underfunding of the health care system, not only in our country. It has shown weaknesses of a system that is based on an individual responsibility for controlling risk. A disease cannot be defeated if the whole community does not act together in solidarity. Soon, we are going to face challenges connected with a necessity of helping those who will lose their source of income. That will, at least, force discussions on new rules of building a collective solidarity. And, maybe, also building a new precaution system based on a collective solidarity. The epidemic explicitly demonstrates the importance of social networks and mutual dependence. It also shows a positive side of new communication technologies, previously being accused of all evil. Thanks to these technologies, exchange of information, mutual support and defusing tension is possible. Social connections are active, and these are the essence of social life.
In the fight against the coronavirus, solutions proposed by countries come first. After that comes all the help signed by the European Union, regardless of its extend and importance. An epidemic is conducive to developing nationalist tendencies, closing oneself for others, strengthening the idea of a nation state, and building borders between neighbours. Also, it may lead to an enforcement of the authoritarian power, which handles crisis situations s well. However, the future scenarios depend on how big a tall the pandemic will take, how long it will last, how many people will die, how well the health-care system and governmental agencies will perform. For now, we are still in a shock…
Dr hab. Iwona Taranowicz, Professor of UWr, Institute of Sociology