Why COVID-19 Is a Social Issue

Why COVID-19 Is a Social Issue

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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