What does COVID-19 mean for the social fabric of our nations?

As much of the world has entered into a bleak period of social confinement and dramatic economic decline, there has been an understandable urge to identify the upshot of this dark moment in global history. In particular, the desire to regard the pandemic as an opportunity to spark a kind of social, economic and political ‘reset’, reinstating a nostalgic vision of a simpler, more community-focused time.

In 1887, Friedrich Engels predicted that only a brutal war would provide the necessary chaos and economic disruption to precipitate a revolution. In 2020, these kinds of hopefully utilitarian aspirations for the pandemic are not confined to any one political tradition. In Western nations in particular, COVID-19 has been portrayed as ‘the Great Leveller’. Yet, it is difficult to afford this notion any credence beyond the superficial universal requirements of behavioural change.

The flagrant use of this term reveals much about the social challenges in Western liberal democracies, which pre-dated this pandemic. As our societies have become more diverse in every sense, and more empowered, the task of conjuring the ‘imagined community’ that Benedict Anderson espoused has become more difficult. And with the arrival of pandemic, the public sphere itself is reconfigured to some degree, with millions tuning in to watch national broadcasts from leaders and their advisers, providing the backdrop of that most elusive quality of modern life: a shared reality.

A survey I published just before the crisis showed that the desire for a greater degree of national unity was one of the few consensus positions in European nations. The outsized salience of nostalgia in Western politics and its cultural resonance at least in part captures the absence of community-forging national tests over recent decades, and strengthens the potency of historical crises such as the Second World War. Leaders and citizens alike have been desperate to chart a course towards a rejuvenation of social ties, because the fragmentation of communities on the back of economic and technological change has made it more difficult to govern and embedded a persistent sense of insecurity.

Over recent years, new identities have emerged and assumed an astonishing degree of power and influence, with societies polarising around generational, socio-economic, educational, regional and gender lines. Over the past five years, policy-makers and researchers and have frequently discussed how an effective invocation of the community underpinning ‘the nation’ could provide the key to softening some of these seemingly insurmountable barriers – repairing the atomising effects of our late-stage capitalist, digital era lives.

There was a considerable desire amongst citizens, too, to believe in the crisis alchemy of social trust. At the outbreak of the crisis I appeared on Sky News discussing, amongst other things, the feverish stockpiling of toilet paper and penne pasta that had consumed the United Kingdom. It was suggested that this behaviour, disadvantaging the elderly and vulnerable, was completely out of character – this is, after all, the land of the Blitz Spirit. When I made the point that the Blitz saw moments of great heroism and selflessness, but also precipitated astonishing spikes in the levels of violent, sexual and petty crime, I received a torrent of threats and abuse on social media and via email for having tarnished the legacy of this crucial period in the national consciousness.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out some of the best traits of the people of the United Kingdom, a nation that prides itself on its generosity; not least of all, the staggering number of applications to volunteer for the National Health Service. Yet, it cannot come as a surprise that stressful situations that inspire a degree of competition around access to scarce resources do not always lead to the highest expression of the immense capacities of human nature. Many other less visible and more troubling forms of destructive social behaviour, whether child abuse, domestic violence, or the tinder box compelled in council estates by confining large families in cramped, unsatisfactory accommodations – have predictably flared, with devastating and lasting consequences for the victims.

As I discussed last week, there is nothing endemic in this crisis that naturally suggests that populism in the West will fall by the wayside in its aftermath – even despite the rallying we have seen ‘around the flag’ in many nations, and the renewed empowerment of our institutions. Similarly, any sense of national unity the pandemic inspires is vulnerable to erosion as we over-compensate for our confinement in the transition, and in the face of the acceleration of social conflict and competition seething beneath the surface of this collective test. At the heart of this pandemic is in fact a very unevenly experienced situation.

While it began as the ‘globalists’ disease’, striking down politicians and political staff, those attending international conferences, or partaking in skiing holidays in the Dolomites, the citizens who bear the brunt of hospitalisations, and indeed deaths, are those with underlying medical and health conditions. Conditions that often reflect deep structural inequalities – including the higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and respiratory illness – affecting citizens from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Those in cities are especially vulnerable, with air pollution linked to a higher propensity for complications and even death. As are those with mental health conditions. In some nations, including the United States, socio-economic disparities are fused onto racial inequalities – meaning citizens from BAME backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be hospitalised, and to pass away.

The trauma of another economic recession of this nature will be collectively shared, yet ultimately, the personal financial impacts of this pandemic will also be asymmetrical. While governments are offering unprecedented interventions to help shield workers and employers from the brunt of the disruption, as in the 2008-09 Financial Crisis, it will be the young who are most vulnerable to its immediate and long-term effects. As the Resolution Foundation noted, “The Government is rightly socialising much of the costs of this crisis […] But these approaches create insider/outsider dynamics in which the young come off worst – compensating people for the earnings they already had rather than the potential earnings they would otherwise have received”. So too are many women, already disadvantaged in their career earnings by the structural inequalities of child-bearing, housework and family caring responsibilities, bearing the brunt of burden of this crisis to the working lives of parents.

The daily experience of this allegedly unifying crisis is also deeply subject to personal circumstance. While we all must undertake social distancing, limiting many of the pleasures of life – and certainly the fall is greatest for those who are able to regularly partake in a vibrant social calendar, excursions to restaurants and the theatre, and overseas travel – the environment in which we live through this ‘lockdown’ varies tremendously. While abuse and violence are of course the extreme, though distressingly common, expressions of disadvantage, many citizens safe in their homes are also – due to prohibitive housing costs – living in small, dark flats with no outdoor spaces. Contrast this with the experience of those living in the countryside, or with large gardens, and the scale of the disparities of constraint and sacrifice become clear.

While images of middle-class runners sprinting buoyantly through parks in their Lululemon athletic gear feature heavily on the news, policy-makers are all too aware that every day that the lockdown continues, many other citizens are eating more, smoking more, drinking more, and experiencing a greater degree of mental strain than they would in their ordinary lives. The elderly have lost many of the activities and support services that maintain their quality of life. Children are forced to confront dark sides of the world previously unbeknownst to their innocent minds. Those who rely on medical support and interventions, including cancer patients, are treading water, and those with undiagnosed conditions may now only discover their illnesses at a dangerous moment in their spread.

The costs to society, and to the state, mount day by day – forcing governments to balance choices about which groups of individuals, and which types of afflictions, are to be privileged.

Worryingly, many of the groups disproportionately affected in a negative manner by the economic, social and daily experiences of the crisis, are those most vulnerable to political disengagement. If there is an eventual backlash from this crisis – and remembering that the ‘lag’ on shaping political behaviour can be relatively long – it could potentially deepen and embed disenfranchisement amongst certain social groups, or equally, create the conditions for a new wave of anti-establishment movements predicated on correcting injustices and inequalities revealed by the crisis. Depending on your personal politics, this second scenario may appear to be a positive option; however, simply from the perspective of governance and social cohesion, it would undoubtedly foretell more rocky years ahead.

I do not wish to appear to forecast only lasting doom and gloom from this crisis. Indeed, there are many ways in which it could indeed offer a pathway towards some profound social reckonings – lighting a fire under burgeoning movements towards a recalculation of our relationship with nature, with work, and with one another. Amidst the obvious stresses, parents are given the chance of a modern lifetime to bond with their children. There will be tremendous opportunities for third sector organisations to have their work more visible and valued, and to build on the momentum of charitable and community acts compelled by the pandemic’s swift hand. It also feels inevitable to some extent that lower-paid workers (often described as ‘unskilled’) on the frontline of this crisis will be afforded a greater degree of respect, and that there will be increased public pressure to reduce the pernicious environmental impacts of industry and transport.

The pandemic has already compelled a surge in public sector innovation and an unprecedented degree of speed in policy responses, and enacted changes to the welfare state that will be difficult to reverse – including the long-called-for adjustments to the payment level and access period of Universal Credit, the UK Government’s flagship centralised welfare payment system. It is also difficult to imagine that the red lines of the first iteration of the UK Government’s new immigration policy will remain as fixed, with thousands of desperately needed frontline NHS migrant workers having had their visas extended in the heat of the crisis.

Ultimately, governments will need to ask themselves why is it unacceptable for citizens to experience acute poverty or social deprivation during a pandemic, and acceptable at other times? Why must social media organisations intervene to combat conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, but are allowed wash their hands of the harmful proliferation of conspiracy theories that work daily to undermine social and political trust? Why is it outrageous for a woman to suffer at the hands of her partner during a lockdown, and somehow not worthy of our outrage on a ‘normal’ day? Is it because the circumstances conjured by the pandemic are seen as so outside of reasonable individual agency? In asking ourselves these questions, we may well begin to expand our common societal understanding of what is ‘beyond a person’s control’, and in doing so, find ourselves willing to look with fresh and frank eyes at some of the more enduring structural barriers that have persisted in plain sight.

Yet, it is nonetheless important to caution – and particularly in light of the very human desire for this crisis to somehow, naturally lead us towards salvation – that its harmful social effects will be profound and potentially long-lasting. And that governments will find themselves at the ‘end’ of all of this, with a list of unresolved problems that pre-dated the crisis, as well as these more recent consequences of the pandemic itself.

While it is perfectly possible that leaders can rise to this tremendous challenge, we do not have ample evidence from the past five years – which has ‘brought up the bodies’ of many simmering tensions and conflicts and inequalities – of their will and capacity to do so. Perhaps the trauma and jolt of this fast-moving, wide-reaching pandemic will provide the grist to the mill to support this in a manner that was not possible before its emergence. It is too early to say. All we can assert with certainty, is that no outcomes are inevitable.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.