An important truism in disaster studies is that all disasters are man-made. This realization conveys that the behavior of people – before, during, after – plays a decisive role in shaping the course of a disaster, even if the trigger comes from nature. Reports calling “nature the villain” obscure how these events are the “product of certain social and political environments.”1 A tsunami can happen of course, but what preventive measures have been taken in advance, whether the evacuation will be prompt and proper, how authorities and communities react, these are all decisions that people make to determine how destructive or harmful the tsunami will be. Likewise, the COVID-19 virus itself is beyond human control, but the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic has been heavily influenced by the choices people have made in response to the virus. From individuals to governments to international organizations, the choices people have made have been critical in shaping the nature and extent of the pandemic. What follows is that understanding how the pandemic evolved means considering the social and societal components of how people interpreted and responded to the virus, and what impact the virus had on the social world and our place in it.
In Naomi Zack’s upcoming book The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020She describes the pandemic as a social catastrophe, by which she means that “the catastrophe is not simply a natural unit or event, but the entire event and how it is integrated into human society”.2 Drawing on E.L. Quarantelli’s work,3 Zack emphasizes that the unequal and complex experience of the pandemic, its immediacy, impact, meaning, duration and associated characteristics vary widely depending on who you are and where you are, both geographically and socioeconomically. This makes it difficult to find a broader social meaning, as experiences with the pandemic have been so varied. The meaning of the pandemic varied greatly between different countries, but also within societies and communities. For some it was literally earth-shattering, most immediate death, but also serious impairments and loss of livelihood or employment; for others, it was a source of stress and concern, while the immediate effects were more likely to be due to discomfort; and for the lucky ones it was indeed a blessing, with daily inconveniences being offset by profits made from the changes brought about by the pandemic. And so the way in which each of us experienced this limit moment was markedly different. strongly influenced by who and where we are, physically and socio-economically. One consequence of this is that the way we make sense and interpret the pandemic is far from uniform, which reflects these significant differences.
When considering the impact of COVID-19, the immediate cost of loss of life needs to be brought to the fore as the death toll from the pandemic continues to climb to 2.5 million people. Every death has a meaning and, cumulatively, these losses are pulling the strings of our world. James Boyd White conveys this point beautifully: “Whenever someone dies … a world of possibility dies with him or her, a web of relationships of care and concern. Part of the fabric of humanity and human community has been torn to pieces. “4th As deaths increase, more opportunities, memories and connections disappear from our world. After the pandemic is over, the damage it did will be left behind. Each death changes the lives of the remaining people, and overall these losses are reflected in society. How these deaths are understood, whether responsibility for them is transferred, how they are remembered; These and other ways the pandemic becomes part of collective memory are an important feature of social disaster.
Seeing the pandemic as a social catastrophe involves more than lives lost and infected by the virus. It also means dealing with the way in which the disaster has changed the way people see themselves and their world. As Zack explains, “This means that disasters are socially constructed. Certain changes in society should be viewed as part of a disaster, not just an effect of a disaster.”5 Disasters can challenge and change the way people see life and the way they treat each other and the world. Indeed, the way a pandemic can do this is recorded in a powerful account of the plague depicted in Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War: “Everything that is sudden, unexpected and completely unpredictable […] inspires a man’s mind ”.6th In more normal periods we work with linear maps of life. As time goes on, we do this with the expectation that we can extrapolate the future from the present and the past. For many, this has been shaken or broken by COVID-19. It’s not just the present that we experience differently, it can lead to the past being questioned and reinterpreted, with previous decisions now looking radically different. It can put the future in a different light, with deadlocked plans and uncertainty about what’s next.
In other words, the pandemic can be said to have created a kind of ontological chaos, in which people’s self-esteem and their relationship with the world have been in turmoil. Many of the key characteristics that determine our life and place in the world are affected. In addition to life and health, COVID-19 has destroyed livelihoods, lost income and employment, separated people from family members and loved ones, and changed the way people treat others. When the markings by which we orient ourselves in the world are removed and the stories we tell about ourselves dissolve, this can together create a sense of disorientation and raise difficult questions about the meaning, purpose and place in the world .
This ontological chaos is linked to epistemological chaos because people have difficulty knowing what is true and what to believe. This is partly due to the pandemic itself, where reality has continually pushed beyond the limits of what was previously believed to be likely or possible. Shoshana Zuboff uses the idea of ”epistemic chaos” specifically to describe the consequences of what she calls “surveillance capitalism” interacting with the pandemic.7th She argues that through “for-profit algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information”, big tech has impaired our ability to understand and interpret the world. The consequences were “to shatter the shared reality, to poison the social discourse, to paralyze democratic politics and sometimes to trigger violence and death”. Zuboff rightly points out the special and harmful role of social media, but the epistemic chaos sparked by the pandemic is a broader phenomenon. Many authorities and institutions have changed their pronouncements and guidelines. The science and knowledge of COVID-19 has progressed incompletely and at random. Risk communication was radically inconsistent in terms of accuracy and quality. When all of these things are combined with the forces that Zuboff identified, the uncertainty about what is true increases. Rusty Ginn writes in the context of the American experience with COVID: “What about the stories we tell about our global institutions, our common values and our own orthodoxy and authorities? These stories are dying. They die because the institutions that are built on these stories have failed us all at once. “8th Together, these experiences create a sense of confusion and discomfort, with the discovery that reality is in some ways more malleable and conditions more changeable than we thought.
The nature of the issues discussed here, particularly the ontological and epistemological chaos sparked by the pandemic, undoubtedly affects us all as individuals. We are not immune to the anxiety and confusion, the persistent feeling of insecurity and discomfort, nor are we necessarily protected from the many effects it has had on daily life. In addition, we need to consider how we can incorporate and respond to the pandemic in our roles as scientists and teachers of world politics. The pandemic really connects with most facets of life and therefore with most areas of knowledge. From security to ethics, statecraft to diplomacy, trade to finance, the pandemic has far-reaching implications for the parts of world politics that we examine. In the coming years it will be necessary to get a grip on the more immediate consequences and at the same time to identify and process the many effects of the second and third order. We certainly live in interesting times, as the saying goes, and the way the pandemic has helped accelerate and clear up existing problems and dynamics suggests that the world is likely only to get more interesting.
Back to the idea of COVID-19 as a social catastrophe: The pandemic is a disaster that we ourselves have struck. The way in which it has evolved reflects the decisions made: individually, collectively and by those responsible for the management and administration of our societies. When such events are understood as purely natural phenomena, the human capacity to act is ignored, both in terms of creating and preventing weak points. The shape and direction of the pandemic is heavily influenced by our individual and collective decisions. A particularly acute example of this is the introduction of vaccines. According to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines was “very uneven and unfair”. 10 countries have given 75% of all vaccinations and 130 countries have not yet received vaccine doses.9 This means that when and how this pandemic will end, depending on who and where you are in the world, will be very different. This is a symbol of the more general point that COVID-19 is a social disaster, a perspective that reminds us of the role of human behaviors and choices that continue to play in the direction and nature of the pandemic, and how it will move forward .
The social world feels like a shaken snow globe, and as the snowflakes slowly settle down, it becomes easier for us to recognize this contained reality. However, at the moment it is difficult to see clearly. While we recognize this, it remains important and necessary that we try to get a grip on this ontological and epistemological chaos through research and teaching and to look for ways to understand what the pandemic means for us and our world. Hannah Arendt wrote in 1975: “We can very well be at one of these decisive turning points in history that separate entire epochs from one another. For contemporaries who, like us, are caught up in the unstoppable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be barely noticeable when crossed. Only when people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls that irretrievably seal off the past. “10
In the course of history there were certainly many false starts and incomplete transitions, for example when Arendt made this observation. Still, the general point holds, and there are many indications that the pandemic could really be such a turning point. We won’t know until Minerva’s owl takes flight, but as those grays become stronger in the evening sky, it is worth pondering what all of this could mean and what role we can play in responding to the ontological and epistemological turmoil in The Pandemic let go of the world.
1Ted Steinberg, Force majeure: the unnatural story of the natural disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 118.
2 Naomi Zack, The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, out 2021).
3E. L. Quarantelli: “What is a disaster? The Need for Clarification of Definition and Conceptualization in Research, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center, Item 177, 1985, pp. 41-73.
4 James Boyd White, Living Speech: Resistance to the Realm of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 3.
5 point, The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020.
6Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2.
7Shoshana Zuboff, The Coup We Don’t Talk About, New York Times, January 29, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/opinion/sunday/facebook-surveillance-society-technology.html.
8Rusty Ginn, “First the People”, Epsilon theory, April 14, 2020: https://www.epsilontheory.com/first-the-people/.
9 “Wildly unfair”: According to the UN, 130 countries have not received a single dose of Covid vaccine. ” The guard, February 18, 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/18/wildly-unfair-un-says-130-countries-have-not-received-a-single-covid-vaccine- can.
10Hannah Arendt, “Home to Roost” in Responsibility and judgment (New York: Shocken Books, 2003), 259.
Arendt, Hannah. 2003. Responsibility and judgment. Shocken books.
Associated Press. 2021. “Wildly unfair”: According to the UN, 130 countries have not received a single dose of Covid vaccine. ” The guard. February 18.
Ginn, Rusty. 2020. “First the people”. Epsilon theory. April 14th. https://www.epsilontheory.com/first-the-people/
Quarantelli, Enrico Louis. 1985. “What is a disaster? The need to clarify the definition and conceptualization in research. “University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.
Steinberg, Ted. 2000. Force majeure: the unnatural story of the natural disaster in America. Oxford University Press.
Thucydides. 1881. History of the Peloponnesian War. Clarendon Press.
White, James Boyd. 2006. Living Speech: Resistance to the Realm of Power. Princeton University Press.
Zack, Naomi. 2021. The American tragedy of COVID-19. Rowman & Littlefield.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2021. “The coup we are not talking about.” New York Times. January 29th.
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