Why COVID-19 Is a Social Issue (2022)

Michael Brennan

Like many of us, I have spent the last 6 months of lockdown consumed by news about the coronavirus pandemic: with daily updates about the spread and containment of the virus, alongside heart-breaking human interest stories – about families unable to comfort their loved ones in their dying days because of the risk of contagion, unable to grieve properly because of restrictions limiting numbers and social practices surrounding funerals.

In the social confinement of lockdown we learned much about health-related concerns central to the virus: about the rate at which the virus reproduces (its R-value), about exponential growth, as well as practical advice on social distancing and better hand hygiene. Overnight, we became armchair epidemiologists.

We learned much also about the social fallout from the pandemic: about disparities in health outcomes between different social groups, about the vastly different experiences of COVID and impact of lockdown by class, gender and ethnicity, and what society might look like after the pandemic. Issues that have been the mainstay of sociologists and social scientists for decades were suddenly mainlined into our news and current affairs media surround.

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Reports that Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME) are more likely to contract and die of the virus than their white counterparts; that women – regardless of their employment status – have shouldered a disproportionate share of childcare and homeschooling during lockdown in comparison to their male partners; or that residents of care homes were discharged from hospitals without being tested for coronavirus, thereby revealing the low regard in which the elderly in our society are held, will come as no surprise to social scientists.

Such differences – or social divisions – merely confirm what sociologists already knew: that the inequalities exposed by COVID-19 only compound already existing inequalities by class, gender, ethnicity, disability and so on. The COVID pandemic, as Jacquline Rose (2020) puts it, brings the ‘the hidden truth of a corrupt world to the surface’, exposing the fault lines in society and amplifying inequalities.

Unleashing the Power of the Social
Fairly recently, I wrote about resilience following tragedy and disaster (Brennan 2020). In doing so, I sought to reclaim notions of resilience – as having social moorings – from psychology, and the implication that resilience is somehow a property of our individual make-up. Aside from exposing the social divisions that are a staple of sociological analysis, the lockdown has also reminded us of the power of social forces.

The pandemic has reinforced the global interconnectedness of our society – our interdependencies upon others in far away places with whom we will never meet. It has also reinforced our fundamental need, closer to home, for genuine face-to-face contact with others upon whom we depend – friends, family, neighbours and a wider sense of community. As useful as they have undoubtedly been, the simulacra of virtual technologies that have helped bring us together while keeping us safely apart, are ersatz; a poor substitute for the embodied human interaction and touch that are a cornerstone of our humanity.

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The very idea of social distancing is anathema to most of us and runs anathema to our shared understanding of the good society. Self-care, as we have learned from the pandemic, is essential but on its own is not enough. We also need the help, support and touch of other people. Community, as former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested before the coronavirus, relies upon face-to-face contact, upon human touch in comforting others who are in need. This is what makes COVID-19 doubly hard for us, robbing us of our desire to reach out to others in socially embodied ways when they need our help most.

And never is community invoked more than in times of death and disaster, which cruelly rips people from society while simultaneously generating a desire to be together – for social solidarity. The power of social ritual in lifting people’s spirits, embodied in the work of nineteenth century French sociologist Emile Durkheim (Brennan 2017), was evident in the weekly ‘clap for carers’ event during lockdown, and was also revealed in the absence of funerary rituals and deathways that help provide support to the bereaved but without which have hampered their grieving in conditions of social distancing.

The policing of social distancing, of mask wearing, and general disorientation surrounding behavioural expectations during ‘the new normal’ of life in a time of pandemic reveal the social and societal implications of COVID-19. The reported abuse of shop workers charged with enforcing mask wearing raises questions about whose responsibility this should be. The confusion provoked by sudden shifts in normative expectations speak also to sociological ideas; especially the concept of anomiethat Durkheim used to describe the anxiety generated by rapid social change in which the old rules no longer apply.

Futurologists Beware
The pandemic has also given rise to a new wave of futurology. Some of this has felt rather Panglossian, with grandiose predictions about how it will lead to less traffic congestion, more home working and a rise in rural living, as we flee the city. The corona crisis has undoubtedly provided new and exciting opportunities to renvision and reshape our current, and often failing, ways of living and working; to rethink what the future might look like after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. But it also prompts a more sober and critical analysis.

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The advent of electronic technologies in the early 1990s generated a wave of optimism about the future that never fully materialised. The emergence of email, we were assured, would make good on Alvin Toffler’s (1970) earlier predictions of the home as a hub; where the electronic cottage would prevail in the third wave of – post-industrial – societal development. Yet reluctance among senior managers within many organisations towards home-working – until the coronavirus forced their hand – meant this never really happened.

A more worrying trend amid the pandemic is the opportunity it presents for organisations and employers to exploit a crisis situation in ways resonant of the ‘disaster capitalism’ described by Naomi Klein (2010). Here there is a genuine and well-founded fear among many that COVID will be used cynically to roll through unpopular neoliberal policies undreamt of in less exceptional circumstances, redrawing established working practices and implementing cost-saving measures to the detriment of workers.

And What Role for Sociology?
A more sanguine reading of the situation is that it provides an opportunity for sociologists and social scientists to provide creative, ‘people-first’ solutions to our present problems. It is this vision, I think, that we must cling to, while remaining critical about the exploitative potential the crisis presents, holding those in positions of power to account. It is this dual vision that is embodied in the sociological imagination envisioned by C. Wright Mills – part of the promise and task of sociology to help create a better world (Mills 1959).

The coronavirus has enlarged issues of sociological relevance like never before. What sometimes appear as abstract or esoteric debates about ‘society’, globalisation, and networks of interdependence, have been made real and brought home to us during the pandemic. Shadow pandemics unleashed by the corona crisis – of mental health, domestic abuse, loneliness – are all part of the ‘sociological private’. They are also ‘public issues’ requiring social intervention. This was acknowledged before the coronavirus by the government’s appointment of a ‘loneliness Tsar’ and publication of a report revealing that loneliness is a public health issue as damaging to our physical health as smoking.

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Sociology has a big part to play in shaping public policy. Never more so than now, following the coronavirus pandemic. Modern societies, as Anthony Giddens (1990) has suggested, imbibe the information and knowledge generated in the academy in order to improve themselves; part of what he calls ‘institutional reflexivity’. To paraphrase Giddens, only by reflexively modifying our policies and practices in light of the knowledge generated by COVID-19 will we be able to confront the future with any degree of confidence.

References:
Brennan, M. (2017) ‘Emile Durkheim’, in Thompson, N. and Cox, G. (eds.) Handbook of the Sociology of Death, Grief and Bereavement (pp. 13-30). London and New York: Routledge.
Brennan, M. (2020) ‘Tragedy and Injustice’, in Thompson, N. and Cox, G. (eds.) Promoting Resilience: Responding to Adversity, Vulnerability and Loss (pp. 48-54). London and New York: Routledge.
Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Klein, N.. (2010) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Free Press.
Rose, J. (2020) ‘Pointing the Finger’, London Review of Books, 42(9): 3-6.
Toffler, A. (1970) Future Shock. New York: Random House.

Michael Brennan is Associate Professor of Sociology and head of the Sociology programme at Liverpool Hope University

Image credit: Leeds, UK, 17 May 2020. Gary Butterfield

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FAQs

When was COVID-19 declared a global pandemic? ›

On 11 March 2020 WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic due to the rapid spread and severity of cases around the world.

Is COVID-19 still a pandemic? ›

With over 1 million deaths this year alone, the pandemic remains an emergency globally and within most countries. "The COVID-19 summer wave, driven by Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, showed that the pandemic is not yet over as the virus continues to circulate in Europe and beyond," a European Commission spokesperson said.

Is it possible to get a COVID-19 reinfection? ›

Can you get Covid-19 twice? Yes, it is possible to get Covid-19 two, three or even more times. As new variants have emerged, and immunity from previous infection and immunisation has reduced over time, reinfection with Covid-19 has become increasingly common.

Where was COVID-19 first identified? ›

The COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the coronavirus pandemic, is an ongoing global pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China.

When was the first case of coronavirus discovered? ›

The first case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2019 and was subsequently declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This global pandemic is now expected to impact on the economic outlook for some time to come.

How serious is COVID-19 usually for most children? ›

For most children and young people, these illnesses will not be serious, and they will soon recover following rest and plenty of fluids.

Can I develop immunity to COVID-19 after testing positive for PCR? ›

If you have previously tested positive for COVID-19, you will probably have developed some immunity to the disease. However, it cannot be guaranteed that everyone will develop immunity, or how long it will last. It is possible for PCR tests to remain positive for some time after COVID-19 infection.

Is COVID-19 caused by a virus or a bacteria? ›

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is caused by a virus, NOT by bacteria.

When was the Coronavirus Yellow Card reporting site launched? ›

The dedicated Coronavirus Yellow Card reporting site was launched in May 2020 specifically for medicines and medical devices used in COVID-19, as well as COVID-19 vaccines when authorised.

Are COVID-19 tests 100% reliable? ›

No test is 100% reliable, even those who meet regulatory standards for performance and safety. The results are also only relevant to that sample at that point in time.

What is the Ronapreve? ›

Ronapreve is the first neutralising antibody medicine specifically designed to treat COVID-19 to be authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for use in the UK.

How long after receiving the COVID-19 booster are you protected? ›

Generally, people with healthy immune systems are protected from infection for three to four months after receiving a COVID booster, but protection from severe illness lasts eight months to a year.

What is a benefit of the COVID-19 autumn booster? ›

The autumn booster is being offered to those at high risk of the complications of COVID-19 infection, who may have not been boosted for a few months. As the number of COVID-19 infections increases over the winter, this booster should help to reduce your risk of being admitted to hospital with COVID-19.

How long does it take for COVID-19 booster to become effective? ›

It may take 7 days for a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose to work.

What are some possible side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine? ›

The most common side effects include a sore arm, fatigue (feeling tired), headache, aches, and fever. Severe side effects are very rare and treatable.

How long does the virus that causes COVID-19 last on surfaces? ›

Recent research evaluated the survival of the COVID-19 virus on different surfaces and reported that the virus can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and up to 24 hours on cardboard.

Who are at higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19? ›

Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

Who might be at higher risk of becoming ill with COVID-19? ›

People who are at higher risk from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections include: Older people. Those who are pregnant. Those who are unvaccinated. People of any age whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness. People of any age with certain long-term conditions.

Is AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine recommended for children? ›

COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca is not recommended for children aged below 18 years. No data are currently available on the use of COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca in children and adolescents younger than 18 years of age.

Is it possible to get a COVID-19 reinfection? ›

Can you get Covid-19 twice? Yes, it is possible to get Covid-19 two, three or even more times. As new variants have emerged, and immunity from previous infection and immunisation has reduced over time, reinfection with Covid-19 has become increasingly common.

Can you take ibuprofen if you have the coronavirus disease? ›

Patients can take paracetamol or ibuprofen when self-medicating for symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and headache, and should follow NHS advice if they have any questions or if symptoms get worse.

What is an antibody test for COVID-19? ›

An antibody test is a blood test to check if you've had coronavirus (COVID-19) before or been vaccinated.

Do smokers suffer from worse COVID-19 symptoms? ›

Early research indicates that, compared to non-smokers, having a history of smoking may substantially increase the chance of adverse health outcomes for COVID-19 patients, including being admitted to intensive care, requiring mechanical ventilation and suffering severe health consequences.

When was the official name of SARS-CoV-2 announced? ›

On 11 February 2020, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses adopted the official name "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2).

When was the Coronavirus Yellow Card reporting site launched? ›

The dedicated Coronavirus Yellow Card reporting site was launched in May 2020 specifically for medicines and medical devices used in COVID-19, as well as COVID-19 vaccines when authorised.

When was the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine approved in the UK? ›

The Moderna vaccine was approved for use in the UK on 8 January 2021 and is an mRNA vaccine, like Pfizer.

What is the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-2? ›

The most likely ecological reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2 are bats, but it is believed that the virus jumped the species barrier to humans from another intermediate animal host. This intermediate animal host could be a domestic food animal, a wild animal, or a domesticated wild animal which has not yet been identified.

What is the new COVID-19 vaccine booster called? ›

The bivalent vaccines, which we will also refer to as “updated boosters,” contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of SARS-CoV-2 virus, one of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the other one in common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.

Are COVID-19 tests 100% reliable? ›

No test is 100% reliable, even those who meet regulatory standards for performance and safety. The results are also only relevant to that sample at that point in time.

What is the Yellow Card scheme for the COVID-19 vaccine? ›

The Yellow Card scheme is a mechanism by which anybody can voluntarily report any suspected adverse reactions or side effects to the vaccine. It is very important to note that a Yellow Card report does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused that reaction or event.

Why do you need to submit a yellow card report for COVID-19 vaccine adverse effects? ›

• Reporters are asked to submit Yellow Card reports even if they only have a suspicion that the medicine or vaccine may have caused the adverse reaction. The existence of an adverse reaction report in the profile does not necessarily mean that the vaccine has caused the suspected reaction.

What are 'nudgeboxes' and what are they used for? ›

5,000 DNA 'Nudgebox' machines, supplied by DnaNudge, will be rolled out across NHS hospitals in the UK to analyse DNA in nose swabs, providing a positive or negative result for COVID-19 in 90 minutes, at the point of care. The machines will process up to 15 tests on the spot each day without the need for a laboratory.

Is COVID-19 caused by a virus or a bacteria? ›

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is caused by a virus, NOT by bacteria.

How long do COVID-19 booster side effects last? ›

Like all medicines, the COVID-19 vaccines can cause side effects, but not everyone gets them. Most side effects are mild and should not last longer than a week, such as: a sore arm from the injection.

Videos

1. Economic , political and social impact of the covid-19 pandemic. English Essay
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4. COVID-19: How are social sciences making a difference?
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5. The Impact of COVID-19 Social Distancing
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6. Under pressure: What do Covid-19 and social care reforms mean for local government?
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