Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Theorising – “It’s (Not) the End of the World as We Know It and I (Don’t) Feel Fine”: Through the Looking Glass Mirror of the Coronapocalypse

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

Victor Roudometof, University of Cyprus, Cyprus

‘Coronapocalypse: make sure you cite me when you use that word’, wrote Jeffrey Hass (University of Richmond, VA) on his Facebook page. Duly noted. The visual images of empty squares and deserted streets from various capitals have already served as the subject of a photo essay in The New York Times. It feels somewhat anti-climactic. Thanks to an impressive array of post-apocalyptic images there is hardly an element of surprise. Life imitating art does not cause a stir. The simulacrum of the Apocalypse has been in circulation in movies, TV series and books for several decades. Unsurprisingly, it has robbed the element of awe from life itself. The simulacrum turns out ‘even better than the real thing’ – witness the news stories about frantic panic in stores or the numerous jokes about massive purchases of toilet paper. Banality. It mocks us. The end of the world comes down to lockdown and curfew. The silent majority watches the world disintegrate from the living room couch, binging on Netflix, food and news.

By all accounts it should take several months or even years to bring the Covid-19 pandemic fully under control. Regardless, humanity is set to survive the Coronapocalypse. That is a given. So, unlike the song, it is not the end of the world as we know it. But that is no cause for celebration. The post-Coronapocalypse world is going to be different. We really should refrain from projecting our hopes and fears onto that future. The Coronapocalypse is an occasion where the magical veil of normalcy is lifted as the virus becomes the ‘crack in everything’ (to use Leonard Cohen’s phrase) that allows truth to be rendered painfully visible: some people cannot survive without an ongoing paycheck even in affluent societies; some cannot afford to get sick; and of course underfunded and underprepared health systems experience collapse in the face of the pandemic. The list of such truths can be multiplied and no doubt it will. That is how the virus works. Perhaps the most evident example of U-turns in social policy concerns the overwhelming urgency with which governments rush to offer financial support to companies and/or individuals. The sudden realisation of impending economic doom (known as ‘L shape’ recession or depression) becomes an overriding concern and ideologies are cast aside.

Coronapocalypse becomes a looking glass mirror through which we see ourselves, our societies, our institutions and structures, in the cold light of a crisis that reveals the failings we have learned to ignore under the façade of cozy convenience (on the humanity of Covid-19 see Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘Un trop humain virus’). Perhaps the most important public dimension of the Coronapocalypse concerns the world-wide official promulgation of new protectionism and localism through the actions of various states. We witness aggressive state intervention, closing of borders, physical movement restriction, ‘social distancing’, the collapse of the travel industry, and several other geopolitical changes are certain to happen as a partial result of the pandemic.

Contrary to suggestions that more cooperation is the proper response, there is a strong impetus toward the opposite direction, with countries often placing their own national interest over other considerations. That is certainly quite visible in Europe, especially as Covid-19 reveals the deep cracks in the European project. If in doubt about this, see Tom Janssen’s ironic but timely cartoon (published on 27 March 2020).

Copyright: Tom Janssen, 2020

When Ulrich Beck [1] wrote in his book of 2000 What is Globalization? that globalisation is ‘irreversible’, it seemed an irrefutable, self-evident truth. Yet, it took only a virus to stop international movement and travel across borders within a small number of weeks. This lesson is a valuable one. It does not truly matter if the world recovers from it. Obviously, the very occurrence of the pandemic is partially attributed to accelerated globalisation – and more specifically upon the vastly expanded habit of routine international travel. But that is all. The significance of localisation for the formation of human bonds under the current predicament of the Global Age has been duly noted by several authors (for examples, see [2, 3, 4, 5]).

But that has not been the dominant academic orthodoxy. In contrast to such a bounded reading of the situation, influential theorists (including Beck, Habermas, Castells and many others) have for a very long time considered as a certainty that globalisation inexorably leads to increasingly cosmopolitan and/or post-national identities. In turn, these identities contribute to a broader transformation that transcends nationalism and the nation-state in favor of global civil society, global governance and cosmopolitan democracy. Current state actions and populist exploitation of localisms render such perspectives almost un-relatable to the world around us. That is the major scholarly consequence of the Coronapocalypse.

There is still a deeper and more emotional revelation delivered through the lenses of the Coronapocalypse. It pertains to the so-called micro-level, the universe of our interpersonal relationships that form the ‘life-world’, the social web ourselves depend on. It is indicative that the misnomer of 2020 might also be a candidate for ‘word of the year’: ‘social distancing’ instead of the far more accurate ‘physical distancing’. We are told to practice social distancing – for the others are potentially dangerous or even lethal to our very existence. Perhaps they are. In Cyprus, once the quarantine was imposed there was a reported 30% increase in instances of domestic violence. In other parts of the globe, there might be different facets of interpersonal relationships where the Coronapocalypse might render visible the truth people do not want to face up to. Sociologists have a responsibility to use these occasions in order to bring forth the under-appreciated realities into the public domain. That is a major opportunity to restore the moral bases of our discipline.

But that might be easier said than done. ‘We live in a cynical age’, as Jeffrey Alexander [6] remarks in the opening sentence of The Civil Sphere. It might be a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. In Greece and Florida, in spite of governmental advice to the contrary, thousands of people went to the beach. People in Italy, France and Greece moved out of heavily contaminated zones into the countryside, in effect transmitting Covid-19 into hitherto clean areas. In some cases, the very inaction of the governments (such as in the case of the UK) has amplified the unavoidable impact of the virus. According to press reports, when US Senators received privileged information on the impact of Covid-19, their first course of action was to sell off their assets in the stock market. None of the above is truly surprising and certainly these reports should not surprise anyone – for cynicism has been here long before Covid-19.

Perhaps the moral foundations of social solidarity are easier to cultivate in ‘Generation C’ [7] – the generation that experiences its formative years during the Coronapocalypse. For older generations, it might be harder to shake off the narcissistic and self-referential habits of their youth. After all, the moral bonds of solidarity are formed in the face of unimaginable disasters, through the sharing of common burdens and catastrophes. For example, the World War II experience shaped the mentality of the generation that endured it. In turn, this mentality contributed to the consensus necessary for the creation of the post-World War II institutional order and welfare state. The UK’s post-World War II creation of the National Health Service (NHS) is a case in point; but numerous other similar examples exist in nearly every single European country. That might be the only bittersweet silver lining. It offers little comfort for the present; and that’s why I don’t feel fine.

References
[1] Beck. U. 2000. What is Globalization? Oxford: Polity
[2] Roudometof, V. 2019. “Recovering the local: from glocalization to localization,” Current Sociology 67 (6): 801-817
[3] Flew, T. 2020. “Globalization, Neo-Globalization and Post-Globalization: The Challenge of Populism and the Return of the National.” Global Media and Communication DOI: 10.1177/1742766519900329
[4] Shamir, R. 2005. “Without Borders? Notes on Globalization as a Mobility Regime.” Sociological Theory 23(2):197–217.
[5] Turner, B S. 2007. “The Enclave Society: Towards a Sociology of Immobility.” European Journal of Social Theory 10(2):287–304.
[6] Alexander, J 2006. The Civil Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[7] Yong, E 2020. “How the Pandemic Will End” The Atlantic (March 25) available on line at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/

Comment on this article – log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.