Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Covid politics – We Have to do Something About It! Agency and Pandemic Mikołaj Pawlak
Covid politics – The Unexpected Victory of the Nation State Agnieszka Bielewska
Covid politics – Pandemic, War Metaphors, and the Process of Civilisation Daniel Arenas
Covid politics – Crisis in the Time of Disaster (Coronavirus) Dr Veselin Mitrović
Covid politics – Morality and Solidarities in a State of Exception Teppo Eskelinen
Covid politics – Your Own Personal State of Emergency José Duarte Ribeiro
Covid politics – Beware of the Ministry of Purity Javier García-Martínez
Covid politics – Reflections on the COVID-19 Rupture: Towards Transformation Angela Martinez Dy
Covid politics – Calling Leaders’ Bluff: The Covid-19 Outbreak and Power Relations in European Societies Matteo Antonini
Covid politics – The Pandemic in Europe's Community of Destiny Stefania Adriana Bevilacqua
Covid politics – Being Tough (Enough?) – Navigating the Limits of Democratic Power in the Coronavirus Crisis Isabel Kusche
Covid Inequalities – Scenarios of Return (im)Mobility and Pandemic Izabela Grabowska
Covid Inequalities – The Butterfly and the Cocoon: The Chinese Community of Prato (Italy) during COVID-19 Laura Leonardi
Beliefs and knowledges – Between a Purifying and Polluting Spoon Milica Resanović
Beliefs and knowledges – The Sound of Silence: The Aestheticization of the Coronavirus in Service of the Production of Knowledge Dr Shirly Bar-Lev
Beliefs and knowledges – Coronavirus, Theodicy and Capitalism Bartholomew A. Konechni
Beliefs and knowledges – Toilet paper and pangolins: Magical thinking during the Covid-19 pandemics David Redmalm
Beliefs and knowledges – Socio-Ecological Mentalities and the Trilemmas of Covid and Climate Dennis Eversberg
Beliefs and knowledges – The Largest Possible Experiment: The Corona Pandemic as Nonknowledge Transfer Matthias Gross
Covid life-courses – Reflecting on Meta-Temporalities in the Study of Youth Futures Within the Covid 19 Pandemic Giuliana Mandich
Covid life-courses – Parents’ Home Office Challenges During the Corona Pandemic Lena Hipp
Covid life-courses – Robots Versus Human Care Workers in Elderly Care: Un-/empathic and Un-/Infected Marcus Persson
Covid life-courses – "My Life in Times of Coronaviruses": Changes in the Everyday Life of Children of Madrid Lourdes Gaitán
Covid life-courses – Alone Together: Biographical Crises in Times of Pandemic Ana Caetano
Life, health, death – Living in a Lockdown: An Opportunity to Enhance Physical Activities? Dr Mihaly Szerovay
Life, health, death – The "Bare Death": Biopolitics and Religiopolitics of Jewish Covid-19 Victims Noa Vana
Life, health, death – Pandemics, Social Sciences and Inequality of Time Cláudio Pinheiro
Life, health, death – The Display of Displaced Care: Funerals in Corona Times Erika Anne Hayfield
Reflections – (Inter)acting in a Different Timeframe Aurianne Stroude
Reflections – Relational Corona Dr. Markus Lange
Reflections – Everything has Changed and Nothing has Changed Hannah Bradby
Reflections – Pandemic Possibilities in Sweden – From a Room with a View Gabriella Wulff
Mediating Covid – Following the #. Italians and ‘Biographical Continuity’ Under Covid-19 Veronica Moretti
Mediating Covid – The Evolution of Fake News in the Context of Coronavirus: First Explorative Insights into the Emergence and Spread of Fake News in Austria Daniela Wetzelhütter
Mediating Covid – Epidemic, Pandemic, Infodemic: A Project in Three Acts Marc Hannappel
Covid Working – Becoming Irrelevant for the System: A Discussion of Terms Elke Hemminger
Covid Working – The Corona Crisis and the Systemic Relevance of Jobs in Germany: Towards a New Appreciation and Solidarity? Paul-Fiete Kramer
Covid Arts – Arts in Finland Sari Karttunen
Covid Arts – The Impact of the Pandemic on Artists: Case Study in Malta Dr Valerie Visanich
Covid Arts – Resisting Pandemics: Balconies, Musicians and Contemporary Lockdowns in Contemporary Spain Kerman Calvo
Covid Arts – The Show Must Go On(line) - Music in Quarantine Alenka Barber-Kersovan
Covid Arts – The State and the Arts in Sweden During the Initial Phase of the Covid-19 Crisis – Less Visible Losses in the Shadow of Lost Lives and Livelihoods Christopher Mathieu
Covid Arts – The Arts in the Time of Pandemic Dr. Olga Kolokytha
Mediating Covid - Covid-19 as a Global Risk and Global Chance Svetlana Hristova

Covid life-courses – Robots Versus Human Care Workers in Elderly Care: Un-/empathic and Un-/Infected

Issue 46: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 2 Sat 1 May 2021 0

Marcus Persson, Associate professor, Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, Sweden.

The spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 has severely affected the elderly population worldwide. Sweden is no exception. When the outbreak first hit the country, the situation at the elderly care facilities changed dramatically within a couple of weeks. On the 4th of March, Swedish Television reports that even if the elderly are identified as a risk group, there are no restrictions regarding visits from family or others. Only two weeks later, on the 18th of March, Stockholm city (which is the epicentre of the virus in the country) imposes an immediate stop to visits. All elderly care facilities in the city are now in quarantine. Two weeks after that, on the 1st of April, Corona-infected patients can be confirmed in more than a third of all elderly care facilities in Stockholm.

The care workers at elder care facilities are identified as the main cause of the virus spreading. They unintentionally brought the virus into the care facilities, which then spread among the elderly. Caring for elderly people means to be close, to sit beside the bed, holding hands, listening, talking, and to be there for another human being when she needs it the most. Physical contact, social interaction, and empathy are at the heart of the caring practice. Paradoxically, these are the same abilities that now impose the greatest threat to those the care workers are trying to help. Humanity has unexpectedly transformed from being a strength to becoming a weakness. To avoid the danger of the virus spreading through interpersonal contact, some turn their attention to those who cannot be infected – robots.

Robots are often discussed as a solution to new societal challenges connected to the ageing population and increasingly demanding care apparatus. Research on robots in care has been criticized for being either technophobic or technophilic: overly optimistic concerning the possibility of new technology, or pessimistic about the risk that robotization of care will entail a dehumanization of patients. Some researchers argue that robots can play social, assistive, or therapeutic roles by interacting with individuals [1]. In relation to groups that face difficulties related to building and maintaining social relationships, such as people with dementia, the robots may facilitate communication and promote well-being. However, other researchers raise ethical questions regarding the risk of increasing older people’s physical and social isolation when robots are introduced in care [2]. For instance, a robot companion could be used as a justification for leaving elderly people alone for a longer period of time.

In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, reports came in from different parts of the world regarding attempts to use robots in health care facilities, to help the overburdened medical workers in their work with Corona patients.

In Thailand, so called ninja robots are used to measure fever and act as a communication medium (through a video link) between the patients and the health care workers – helping the workers to keep physical distance from the patients. These robots were originally designed to monitor stroke patients, but with modifications, they are now useful to patients with Covid-19. 

China has taken it one step further. A field hospital staffed by robots opened in Wuhan, where the pandemic began. Medical services in the facility are carried out by robots. Patients are wearing smart bracelets so their vital signs, including temperature, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels, are monitored. Humanoid robots, the so-called Cloud Ginger, are used to interact with, and to entertain, bored Corona patients living in quarantine, for example by leading various games and dance exercises in groups. 

In other countries as well, for example the USA, various type of robots are used to bring food, drink, and medical supplies to the patients without any physical contact with the care workers. Autonomous robots are used indoors as well as outdoors to spray disinfectant and clean the floors. And in some hospitals, autonomous robots run around, stopping and checking people’s temperatures.  

Suddenly, the robots’ main weakness – in terms of their lack of human sociality and empathy has turned into their main strength: their inability to be infected and infect others with the virus. The robots may be a poor substitute for human contact, but they are safe from the virus. During the pandemic crisis, physical security is more important than social and empathic loss. It is reasonable to argue that we need to protect the elderly from physical illness by isolating them and let them be cared for by robots. But afterwards, then what?

Once the spread of the virus has been stopped through mass vaccination, or through other measures, the situation can go back to normal. Or so we may think. However, there will always be new pandemics. What did we learn from this pandemic, and what will we do better next time? More robots perhaps, which would mean safer physical environments for the elderly, but also less physical contact, less sociality, and less empathy. Being human means being a medical risk to one another. Then again, social isolation and loneliness are well documented risks for developing mental illness and depression. The questions are many and not easily answered. One thing we can be sure of is that the debate, between the advocates who want to introduce more robots in care facilities, and the critics who are afraid of dehumanized care, will begin as soon as the spread of the Coronavirus stops.       


[1] Kangasniemi M, Karki S, Colley N, & Voutilainen A (2019) ‘The use of robots and other automated devices in nurses' work: An integrative review’. International Journal of Nursing Practice, 25(4):e12739.
[2] Vandemeulebroucke T, Dietckx de Casterlé B, & Gastman C (2018) ‘The use of care robots in aged care: A systematic review of argument-based ethics literature’. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 74: 15-25.

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