Coronavirus: Sociology of a pandemic | Daily News


Coronavirus: Sociology of a pandemic

This article sheds some light on what sociology in general and epidemics sociology in particular (which interacts with the sociology of knowledge and social epistemology ) has to say about pandemics and emerging infectious diseases, like the Corona Virus, at a time when some would claim this topic to be the increasingly exclusive terrain of microbiologists, virologists and practitioners in public health.

Such assertions, sociologists argue, betray a basic lack of understanding of how medicine and biomedical science relate to the world in which they exist. The new pandemic is at least as big a challenge to the social scientists.

If we continue to neglect this, there is a serious danger that we end up with mistaken national and international policies that do more harm than good.Both fields are social institutions.

This means that they are carried out in social organisations by people who are socially recognised as competent practitioners within a division of labour; that they are delivered through other organisations and through social interactions with innumerable partners.

Furthermore, problems come to medicine and biomedical science along socially constructed pathways and are delivered into the world by other pathways: knowledge or technology transfer is a social process.

A focus of attention and resources on medicine and biomedical science, then, tells less than half the story of how societies identify new diseases, how they respond, and what the consequences might be.

The more I researched the sociology of pandemics literature, the more I realised that sociology is important in how a society reacts to out wide spread pandemics.

This article could be the first attempt by an Arab sociologist, I believe, to make a general sociological statement on the striking problems that large, fatal pandemic like the coronavirus seems to present to social orders different waves of disorder: fear, panic, stigmatising and calls to action that seem to characterize the immediate reaction.

Societies worldwide are caught up for the time being in an extraordinary emotional maelstrom which seems, at least for a time, to be beyond anyone’s immediate control.

In my review of relevant literature I found the best theoretical framework that I could adopt in understanding the sociological relevance of the new coronavirus pandemic is the one developed by Philip Strong. Thirty years ago he explored in an article published in the Sociology of Health and Illness Journal, the pandemic caused by HIV in the 1980s as related to social dynamics and social orders of societies. I also will draw inspirations in my analyses from the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in collective psychology.

Unlike cognitive psychologists who generally assume that disorder caused by the epidemic results from primitive emotions unleashed by such threats, Strong argued, that apparently what we think of as a bizarre behaviour may be entirely intelligible once it is understood how the world is routinely stabilised by language and social institutions.

For him, emerging epidemics disturb our assumptions of a known universe of risk.

A new hazard disrupts our established strategies for managing our everyday lives.

What appears as irrational may be a locally rational response to uncertainty, or at least an attempt to use locally available resources to re-establish sufficient certainty for adaptive practical action. Strong proposes a sociological study of societal responses to an existential threat.He stresses the inherent formlessness of the complex world: it acquires order as the outcome of human actions that assign meaning to events through the socially shared medium of language and the institutions that have evolved to manage and stabilise sources of uncertainty. Theoretically, epidemic sociology that we apply in this article, following Strong, is a phrase with a double meaning.

It contains within it a reference, not just to the special micro-sociology or social psychology of epidemics, but to the fact that the social has its own epidemic nature, quite separate from the epidemic of disease.

Like the disease, the social too can spread rapidly from person to person, thereby creating a major collective as well as individual impact. At the same time, however, its spread can take a much wider variety of forms.

In order to model epidemic sociology and make it empirically applicable, we employ three types of psycho-social epidemics that will us to analyse the sociology of the coronavirus pandemic. (a) the epidemic of fear. (b) the epidemic of stigmatisation and moralisation, and (c) the epidemic of action, and adaptive reaction. The particular features of all three psycho-social epidemics need closer examination in studying the coronavirus reactions.

It is worth elaborating that the three epidemics of fear, stigmatisation and moralisation patterns of action seem to be much more severe when the virus is new or strikes in a new way like the coronavirus that swiftly became a pandemic. But, before doing this, several qualifications and asides should be made.

From a sociological point of view what is interesting about these three psycho-social epidemics is that they have the potential capacity to infect almost everyone in the society. Just as almost everyone can potentially catch certain epidemic diseases, so almost everyone has the capacity to be frightened of such diseases — and, likewise, has the capacity to interpret, stigmatise or moralise and behaviourally adapt to the new situation or think that something must be done and done urgently. All three aspects, therefore simultaneously possess profound psychological and collective characteristics.

Let me apply the three psycho-social aspects to understand the sociology of the coronavirus pandemic. At the very beginning of this new epidemic when so much was unknown, and the virus was confined to the Wuhan province in China, there was in peoples’ imagination the prospect in that it might or might not reach our shores.

What happened was quite consistent with what we know about risk perception. This inherent possibility is itself a powerful determinant of both the crisis and the subsequent response. Fear can feed on itself, just as governments’ foresights, or lack of it, and how they must respond to what might happen as well as to what has already come to pass.

The epidemic of fear among the other two psycho socials, seems to have in such cases, several striking characteristics, or potential characteristics. First, fear is an emotional, behavioural and physiological coping reaction to perceived threats. The epidemic of fear in this regard is also an epidemic of anxiety and suspicion.

There is the fear that I might catch the virus and the suspicion that you may already have it and might pass it on to me. As the number of confirmed cases of illness started to spike, so did public anxiety which is largely fuelled by a feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability.

A second characteristic of fear from this novel epidemic disease seems to be the obsession with new habits of frequent washing hands and keeping the distance from others to avoid sneezing and coughing. There is also the sudden interruption in social empathy that usually comes through shaking hands and kissing.

All this keeps the person overwhelmed with the newly emerging responses and also obsessive of germs that goes beyond a concern with cleanness. People start developing a compulsive fear that the virus may be transmitted through any number of different routes.

This leads in some people to irrational phobic feeling that suspects the whole environment. Human, animal and inanimate may be rendered potentially infectious.

If one does not know what is happening, who knows where the virus might not spring from?

Psychologically, uncertainty about the trajectory of the threat exacerbates a feeling of not being in control. Also when a threat or danger is gradually approaching people, as the coronavirus does, it tends to be more frightening to people than, let us say, to appear all of a sudden. As the virus kept encroaching and spreading, people became more anxious about if and when it will personally touch their lives.

I think it’s important to understand that this very hardwired into people.

It is a deep-seated intuition, that when they deal with uncertainty, they become in unpredicted and unsafe situation.

And so uncertainty naturally leads to anxiety, and it starts to feed a lot of it.

But I think there’s an ironic piece here: the more people want to be certain and seek out information it actually increases the anxiety and not decreases.

A third striking feature, closely linked to the two above, is the way that fear and suspicion becomes wholly separate from the reality of the epidemic when the psychology of rumours and social media’s false news start playing a role.

Such panic can extend even to those who are nominally best informed about the epidemic.

In fact most people havetwo levels of thinking. They have their rational mind but they have also a more primitive, visceral, gut reaction where and when the herd instinct kicks in and where people suspend judgment and start doing what everyone else is doing.

(Gulf Times)


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