Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Theorising – The Social Definition of the Corona Pandemic

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

Sandra Maria Pfister, University of Linz, Austria

(c) Pfister / Pichler 2020

Despite social scientists increasingly achieving media presence when it comes to the secondary effects of the Corona crisis, both the crisis management and the public discourse on the Corona pandemic itself are still dominated by bio-medical perspectives. The origin of the virus, the routes of its transmission, its prevalence and incidence, its lethality and immunity, its clinical diagnosis, as well as the search for a medical therapy and vaccine, are the central themes here, and they provide a biologically underpinned rationale for the measures that are taken in order to combat its further spread.

Such an instrumental orientation that takes the crisis as something that is ‘out there’ and has to be controlled is described by the ‘control paradigm’ [1], and neglects the symbolic dimension of how the Corona pandemic becomes social reality. Therefore, the bio-medical perspective just tells half of the story [2, 3] – although its relevance is not in question.

While the question of the social origins of the emerging pandemic alone might fill many pages (e.g. from the interlocking of human habitats and nature, to the social factors that underpin social networks and the likelihood of infection, and the differentials in morbidity and mortality) [4, 5, 6], this short essay addresses the social definition of the pandemic itself, which is far from being a self-evident phenomenon. This is not to deny that the viral spreading poses a serious threat to society. But the way societies perceive and understand the viral spread is not reducible to the ontological reality of the virus, but instead follows a social logic. The moment when the viral pandemic becomes social reality is the moment of its social definition, and the moment when it becomes a disaster is when it disrupts taken-for-granted reality.

Like new risks in late modernity, emerging infectious diseases such as the Corona pandemic lack direct evidence [7]. The discernment of an emerging pandemic relies on a broad set of social practices and embodies a whole set of ideas. In the initial phase, it relies on the indirect evidence of symptoms,,the contingent decisions of both the affected persons (serious enough to become aware of it and to consult a doctor) and the medical professionals (their diagnoses have to deviate from well-known diseases), and the occurrence of a sufficient number of noncoincidental cases [8], as was the case with the first cluster of infections in Wuhan at the end of 2019. However, it took more than a month to identify and classify the novel virus SARS-CoV-2, and hence to bring the virus into social reality. Such a visualisation of the invisible, to put it in Ulrich Beck’s terms, relies on the instruments of science and technology [9], such as laboratory capacities, and theories of bacteriology and virology.

However, the discovery of the microbial actor is not sufficient for a viral pandemic to emerge. It relies on theories of communicability and transmission, and evidence of its spread. This is the very terrain of epidemiologists. The tracking of transmission routes, and the detection of suspects (through contact tracing) and infected individuals (through diagnoses and testing), produce data that indicate the prevalence of the novel Coronavirus. Similar to pandemic simulations, the real-time epidemiological surveillance of pandemics can be considered ‘animated social theories’ [10]: They build on ideas of index cases, (healthy) human carriers, and a biologically-underpinned imagination of the community as a discrete ecosystem [11]. However, the guidelines for contact tracing and testing alone suggest that there might be a divergence of detected and real figures. Furthermore, the imagination of the ‘biological community’ is limited to the nation-state rather than the global village, which is reinforced by appeals for solidarity among national citizens, and the idea that the health of the individual coincides with the State’s institutions (despite there being few cases of States that provide assistance for other States).

The social definition of the pandemic becomes obvious through the fact that, for the major part of the public – unless one is caught up in the midst of the breakdown of the healthcare system – the pandemic appears through the daily checking of  epidemiological maps, the prevalence of the virus (the infected part of a given community), incidences (new cases for a given period of time), and the rising death tolls. Unlike most other disasters, the pandemic lacks direct evidence. Therefore it is built on an assemblage of information, and hence is situated in the sphere of knowledge [12].

The global spread of microbes does not constitute a pandemic threat yet. Microbes are facts of life, and most of them are considered harmless. Therefore, to become a threat, microbes and their spread need adversely to affect societal values. However, as scholars of securitisation studies [13] argue, an issue becomes a threat to security only by means of social construction. Regarding the discourse on Corona, the threat is located more in the limited capacities for its medical treatment than in the virus itself – society’s vulnerability comes to the fore here. It merges two biopolitical imaginations: On the one hand, the discovery of the viral actor draws a sharp dividing line between communities and the alien species, and hence unifies humankind in the wake of the fight against the foe. On the other hand, and what becomes vivid in the reports of triage applied in Northern Italy and France, scarcity urges tragic decisions, namely a biopolitical division of whose lives shall be saved, and who should be left to die [14]. As such, the virus demonstrates the most basic problems of human life, namely suffering and unexpected death [15].

But the roots of pandemic traumatisation [16] run deeper. As Strong argued, a microbial epidemic is likely to come along with three psychosocial epidemics [17], each of them referring to disrupting experiences. First, an epidemic of fear and suspicion. In the wake of the pandemic threat, our everyday routines and structures, which are usually a source of stability and predictability, and hence security, become suspicious. Our neighbours, loved ones, and even children – the epitome of innocence – become the threatening source of infection and disease through their own susceptibility to the virus. Thus, the pandemic highlights the basic dilemma of human contact: ‘The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as community’ [18].

Second, an epidemic of explanation and collective disorientation. The pandemic story can be told as a story of how unknown unknowns (the unexpected emergence of the virus) are transformed to known knowns (e.g. scientific facts such as the identification of the virus), known unknowns (e.g. lethality, dark figures, etc.), and unknown knowns (e.g. downplaying the seriousness of the threat) [19]. The resultant uncertainties challenge the modern faith in progress and technological solutionism. At the same time, the threat to human lives urges action. Thus, crisis management is subject to continuous piecemeal adaptations to a situation, where available knowledge is highly limited.

This leads to, third, an epidemic of action. The social response to the Corona pandemic entangles each societal realm: more and more countries restrict public life or even promote total shutdown, affecting the economic sector, health care, education, the domestic sphere, and so on. While Stallings [20] considers disaster responses to be disruption routines aimed at stabilising disrupted routines, the response to the Corona pandemic actually consists in the disruption of routines. Paradoxically, the suspension of order is considered the means of salvaging it. This is not to deem such measures unnecessary. But if the experience of a disaster consists in the disruption of the taken-for-granted order, then the response is a constituent element as well – at least to the same extent as the biological effects of the virus itself: ‘For a moment at least, the world may be turned upside down’ [21].

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[3] Strong, P. 1990. Epidemic psychology. A model. Sociology of Health & Illness 12: 249–260.
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[7] Beck, U. 1996. Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 59.
[8] Hughes, Cornelius G. 1993. The Piper’s Dance. A Paradigm of the Collective Response to Epidemic Disease. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 11: 227–245.
[9] Beck 1996, 35.
[10] Opitz, S. 2017. Simulating the world. The digital enactment of pandemics as a mode of global self-observation. European Journal of Social Theory 20: 392–416.
[11] Wald, P. 2008. Contagious. Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.
[12] Beck 1996, 35ff; 68ff.
[13] Buzan, B.; Wæver, O.; de Wilde, J. 1998. Security. A New Framework for Analysis. London: Boulder.
[14] Horn, E. 2010. Enden des Menschen. Globale Katastrophen als biopolitische Fantasie. In: Sorg, R.; Würffel, S. (Eds.): Apokalypse und Utopie in der Moderne, München: Fink., 108ff.
[15] Clausen 1994, 55f.
[16] Hughes 1993.
[17] Strong 1990.
[18] Wald 2008, 2.
[19] Daase, C.; Kessler, O. 2007. Knowns and Unknowns in the `War on Terror’: Uncertainty and the Political Construction of Danger. Security Dialogue 38: 411–434.
[20] Stallings, R. 1998. Disaster and the theory of social order. In: Quarantelli, E. (Ed.): What is a disaster? Perspectives on the question, London: Routledge, 127–145.
[21] Strong 1990, 255.

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