Coronavirus is a new respiratory infectious disease which in recent months and weeks has claimed over 200 000 human lives across the globe.
It has put extraordinary strain on the health system of many developing and developed countries as well as on the health professionals including microbiologists and virologists.
Modern medicine, epidemiology, and biomedical science are under tremendous pressure to frantically find a cure or develop a vaccine as the modern secular globalised world comes to grips with what might be called once-in-a-century global natural disaster.
Given its depth and scale, the Coronavirus has clearly revealed our vulnerability to medical diseases despite remarkable advances made in medical science and clinical medicine in the last hundred or so years.
The global outbreak of Coronavirus also underscores how easily and swiftly a biological and epidemiological problem can transform into a social, economic, and political crisis and become a universal existential threat.
In an attempt to combat Coronavirus the most common strategy employed by various states worldwide has been a public health approach erroneously called the “social distancing” rather than “physical distancing” or “distant socialising”.
The public health approach has involved boosting the capacity of health clinics and hospitals, applying stringent quarantine measures to infected patients, campaigning for enhancing physical hygiene such as regular hand washing and practicing proper coughing and sneezing etiquettes, and dramatically increasing the rate of Coronavirus testing.
However, the public health approach has gone beyond this encouraging the general population to wear masks in public, which has caused frenzied purchasing of masks worldwide, public parks and beaches have been made off-limits except for exercising, recreational driving in private motor vehicles is prohibited, home confinement for even unaffected individuals has been made mandatory, and country borders are closed, despite the lack of scientific evidence of their efficacy in terms of cause-and-effect.
The consequences of the Coronavirus are multidimensional but in this piece I will concentrate on the social aspect; an aspect medical experts and political leaders have grossly neglected.
One of the most serious consequences of the Coronavirus outbreak is the rise of “social bewilderment” among individuals around the world. It is making citizens even from societies without a confirmed outbreak, confused because whilst they may enjoy the rare intimacy in a fast-paced modern capitalism with loved ones during the “lockdown” they are at the same time unable to socialise with colleagues and friends in a face-to-face manner that they are so used to and can’t feel the sense of freedom they have always taken for granted.
People, particularly younger generation, feel trapped and disappointed as they are unable to fathom their society’s vulnerability to a global natural disaster and its inability to face what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls hazards and insecurities of a risk society (Beck, 1992).
Modernisation has created a risk society which is part of our daily life now. Modernisation has brought about huge transformation in our society and in our social interaction with many unintended and unanticipated side-effects making citizens vulnerable to risks or existential threat. Our social space is no longer fixed, although we may yearn for its fixity, and has become very fluid conflating both public and private spheres into one.
The Coronavirus outbreak reveals that risk society leads to a blurring of the public and private spaces particularly for younger generation and to an unshielded society. Usually, people from lower socio-economic class, single parent families, women, and people with disability suffer disproportionate harm from epidemics, pandemics, and social and natural disasters (Marshall et al., 2020) but in the case of Coronavirus, people from practically all walks of life and across a broad age spectrum feel at risk.
It is for this reason that large government investments must be made not only to study risks in the society but protect the health system from the vulnerabilities that it currently suffers. Instead of funding space exploration, space war, weapons of mass destruction, and boarder protection financial investments needs to be made in medical research, health clinics, and hospitals to cement personal security of the citizens and creation of a secure and safer social space for individuals to experience.
The outbreak of Coronavirus and its concomitant health, economic, and social effects will no doubt be recorded in the pages of modern human history (late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries) as the mother of all disasters because of its uniqueness.
It is for the first time in modern human history that a disaster has highlighted so clearly and in the most dramatic fashion the fragility of human biological life despite the advancements made in various areas of human life including men travelling to the moon.
The Coronavirus has made the world feel so vulnerable to hazards making people, particularly the rich as the poor have no say in the matter, plea for a “sterile society” which is hazard-proof as their quest for eternity continues.
To secure our social space, transform the “risk society”, and overcome hazards we have to collectively engage in a new biological, social, and spiritual/religious dialogue with the environment and its other inhabitants and, of course, among ourselves.
We need to teach ourselves that life on the planet earth is not eternal, that economic structure of our society is only one aspect of life – not all of life – and the zero-sum approach to living is unpalatable, that politics is not about empowering politicians but empowering the people, that the social is more about people coming together to cohere and for mutual exchange, and that family is the most crucial institution upon which the society rests.
We need economists and economic rationalists to take a step back and make way for a new interdisciplinary approach in which anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, as well as health workers, medical professionals, virologists, and epidemiologists can cooperate with each other to change human attitude towards the environment, transform human behaviour, and help us mitigate if not eliminate the “risk” and improve our biological, mental, spiritual, and social resilience and divert us from excessive material pursuit of happiness.