Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Being Cosmopolitan and Anti-Cosmopolitan – The Covid-19 Pandemic as a Cosmopolitan Moment

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Peter Holley, University of Helsinki, Finland

After its initial outbreak in December 2019 in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, People's Republic of China, by April 2nd, 2020 the 2019 novel coronavirus (Covid-19) had spread to over 200 countries and territories across the globe. In fact, by this date there were 928,437 confirmed Covid-19 cases worldwide and 46,891 deaths [1], although with variations in testing practices in different countries we cannot assume that such figures capture the full extent of this pandemic.

Recent news from Iceland has suggested that in wider population testing by the biopharma company deCODE, around 50% of those who tested positive were reportedly asymptomatic [2]. It is perhaps not first and foremost in our minds at this time, but the rapid spread of Covid-19 in fact reveals how globally interconnected we all are. In a world constantly on the move, this virus has spread from a localised epidemic to a global pandemic shockingly quickly. Indeed, as we (humans) collectively took over 4 billion trips by air in 2019, a viral ‘infection in all but the most remote corner of the world can make its way to a major city in a day or less’ [3]. Because we are so mobile, diseases are too. This global interconnectivity presents humanity with a level of risk that we now confront in all aspects our lives. This risk has given rise to a ‘cosmopolitan moment’ [4], which I will reflect upon in this short piece.

Risk, the cosmopolitan moment and negative solidarity
When writing about the global risk society, Ulrich Beck referred to the spectacle and actions of different actors following the coordinated September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks (AKA 9-11) and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean [5]. Likewise, as a real-time catastrophic event of global scale, Covid-19 also has the potential to impact the whole of humanity. This pandemic exhibits what Beck refers to as the three characteristics of a global risk:

  1. It is delocalised, with its consequences not limited to one geographic location, nation-state or even continent,
  2. Its social, economic and political consequences are in principle incalculable,
  3. It possesses an element of non-compensatability, as the destructive impact of the virus – i.e. the loss of life – cannot be ‘made good’ after the crisis abates [6].

This global risk, then, is reported upon incessantly by media around the globe in a non-stop cacophony. Journalism presents Covid-19 as a traumatic experience, a ‘real-life thriller in everyone’s living room that tears down the walls of national indifference, overcomes the greatest geographical distances and creates a kind of cosmopolitan solidarity (for this moment of time)’ [7].

As a crisis that is experienced both locally and globally, Covid-19 has given rise to a unique cosmopolitan moment in world society. In this, for example, governments, NGOs, medical professionals and scientists are brought together by the threat that the virus presents. This interaction is not so much by choice: it is obligatory given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. As such, it can be thought of as imposed cross-border engagement. Reporters note that never before ‘have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency’ [8], and global business has seemingly become focused on the manufacture and procurement of ventilators for patients and personal protective equipment for medical professionals. Here, confronted with a threat to human life unseen since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, such actions exemplify a negative solidarity.

Positive solidarity as a response to crisis?
Nonetheless, while this negative solidarity arises (as we are all forced to grapple with the ontological insecurity generated by a virus that, if not stopped, could kill millions in Barcelona, Baghdad or Bangalore), I argue that, in the horror of this global pandemic, we are also witnessing an altogether different, perhaps fleeting, positive solidarity within the same cosmopolitan moment.

As ordinary life grinds to a halt and individuals are increasingly bade to ‘self-isolate’ in the midst of ‘shelter in place’ and lockdown orders, people engage in activities to combat social isolation on their home’s threshold and their balcony or rooftop. These are recorded and shared online with others as YouTube videos or social media posts. Such activities are copied by others, recorded and again shared online. Further, news organisations eager for subject matter that does not include discussions of flattening the Coronavirus curve and images mass graves or refrigerated trailers being used as makeshift mortuaries, are contributing to the global spread of such ‘light content’.

A quick search of YouTube, Twitter or Facebook reveals videos of musicians playing popular music in communities around the world. Songs such as John Lennon’s Imagine appears popular with performances shared online. Moreover, Hollywood celebrities such as Gal Gadot Varsano, Natalie Portman and Will Ferrell have seemingly also jumped on the Imagine bandwagon by releasing their own cover of Lennon’s song on Instagram. From amateur musicians to titans of pop-culture, music has become a means to reach out responsibly from self-isolation, generating (online) interactions and intimacies with others. Indeed, some performances have explicitly sought to communicate solidarity with places in which Covid-19 has hit hardest. This can be seen in the performance of, for example, the Italian folk song Bella Ciao by residents of Bamberg, Germany. Other YouTube/social media posts – whether they be Sir Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, or police officers entertaining the public as they look on from windows and balconies or videos of rooftop aerobics – exhibit the same qualities: signs of common humanity and hope amidst the crisis.

Beyond the creation of video content and its sharing online, social media has become a key medium for individuals to interact with others both close and distant. A recent report [9] indicates that across all of Facebook’s messaging platforms (Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp), social media messaging had increased by 50% in the month of March and by over 70% since the beginning of the crisis. Indeed, along with increased use, we are also spending more time on social media. Here, beyond contact with immediate friends and family, people reach out and articulate a common, shared sense of humanity. In addition to hashtags such as #covid19, platforms like Instagram and Twitter have seen hundreds of thousands of posts with tags such as #weareinthistogether / #wereinthistogether, #wewillgetthroughthis / #WellGetThroughThisTogether and the like. Such posts are not limited to the English-speaking world. In Finnish, for example, #yhdessäerikseen (together separately) has been widely used.

In addition to such hashtags, social media, for example, has spurred the global spread of caremongering (in opposition to scaremongering), a movement in which individuals seek to offer help and support to others during the pandemic. Originally used in Canada, #caremongering is spreading around the globe, as people engage in actions to support one another, particularly the most vulnerable. While intensely local, the use of caremongering (be it sharing books on roadside stands, or providing food for the elderly and infirm), and particularly its online spread, shows the positive side of humanity during a crisis, and its spread points to the universality of acts of human kindness. Although this may be fleeting, such positive solidarity suggests that within the same cosmopolitan moment, banal experiences of global interconnectedness are brought to the fore. These open our eyes to a shared human experience across state borders and the boundaries of difference.

Concluding remark
While certainly not a detailed analysis of this cosmopolitan moment, this short reflection points both to the positive and negative solidarities engendered by Covid-19. I do not want to diminish the horrific consequences of this pandemic (particularly the loss of life, and the anxieties caused as a people adapt to living in social isolation), nor do I wish to dismiss the enforced cooperation (i.e. negative solidarity) it has brought about. However, I do wish to highlight its potential for sociologists to develop a truly global sociological imagination - one that interrogates ‘how, in practice, global dynamics and lived lives are interrelated’ [10]. Covid-19’s unique cosmopolitan moment opens new vistas for sociological inquiry. The positive solidarity emerging globally during this crisis can be seen as a source of hope, revealing our propensity to reach out and make connections in trying times. Indeed, as a listener’s art [11], sociology has the potential to provide a live commentary on ordinary lives lived in a world again in crisis.

[1] European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) 2020. Situation update worldwide, as of 2 April 2020. Accessed 2.4.2020.
[2] John, T. 2020. ‘Iceland lab's testing suggests 50% of coronavirus cases have no symptoms’, CNN International, 1.4.2020. Accessed 1.4.2020.
[3] Walsh, B. 2017. ‘The World Is Not Ready for the Next Pandemic’, Time, 4.5.2017. Accessed 1.4.2020.
[4] Beck, U. 2009a. ‘Critical Theory of World Risk Society: A Cosmopolitan Vision’, Constellations 16(1):3-22.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Beck, U. 2009b. World at Risk. Cambridge & Malden, MA: Polity.
[7] Beck 2009a (page 12).
[8] Apuzzo, M. and Kirkpatrick, D.D. 2020. ‘Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together’, The New York Times, 1.4.2020. Accessed 1.4.2020.
[9] Perez, S. 2020. ‘Report: WhatsApp has seen a 40% increase in usage due to COVID-19 pandemic’, Tech Crunch, 26.3.2020. Accessed 2.4.2020.
[10] Axford, B. 2013. Theories of Globalization, Cambridge & Malden, MA: Polity.
[11] Back, L. 2007. The Art of Listening, Oxford & New York, NY: Berg Publishers.

Photo Attribution:
The photographic mosaic produced by the author from the following public domain images: 1. Covid-19 Illustration (Image ID# 22312) produced by the CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS. 2. The Blue Marble taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans (NASA/Apollo 17 crew). Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

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