Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – Crisis in the Time of Disaster (Coronavirus)
Veselin Mitrović, Institute for Social Sciences, Belgrade, Serbia
During the Coronavirus pandemic, we are exposed to daily reports – national and global – that cover the number of people tested, infected, killed and cured. We get different forecasts about the course and effects of the infection. We are witnessing different national scenarios and models.
Two approaches dominate. The first approach is to achieve herd immunity quickly, which implies a great and rapid progression of the infected and dead. This approach promises to counteract the virus very rapidly with only minor negative socio-economic side-effects. Yet, this is obviously horrendous for those most vulnerable to the virus. In short, the first approach amounts to the idea of letting nature take its course.
The second approach opposes such a hands-off strategy. Instead, it proposes measures to restrict movement for different categories of the population in order to minimize social contact. Unfortunately, this approach has significant negative socio-economic effects, as we can witness right now. Still, as a first response, this was characteristic for states that have maintained strong systems of primary care and institutes of public health, which are – mostly but not necessarily – characteristic of former socialist societies.
Only time will tell which approach is overall better when considering not only the traits of the infection and public health, but also the impact on socio-economic structure and culture.
However, what passes as a kind of latent danger that causes cumulative damage is the daily intertwining of the terms crisis and disaster in everyday, public, and scientific forms of speech.
In a scientific sense, “[d]isaster is an event (or series of events) that injures or kills a significant number of people or, otherwise, severely disrupts their daily lives in civil society. Disasters can be natural or the result of an inadvertent or intentional human act. These include, but are not limited to, fires; floods; storms; earthquakes; chemical vapors; leakage or infiltration of toxic substances; terrorist attacks by conventional, nuclear or biological weapons; epidemics; pandemics; a massive decline in electronic communications; including other events that experts and officials refer to as ‘disasters’. Disasters always come as a surprise and a shock; they are unwanted by the affected population, though not always unpredictable. Disasters also create narratives and media images of the heroism, fall and loss of those who are affected and those who respond to it” .
The terms conflict and crisis are defined in opposition to disaster, but carry in their meaning a certain institutionalized risk of disaster. While disasters are typically characterized by prosocial behaviours, conflicts and crises are usually framed by the various interests of opposed actors who are responsible for and deepen them .
More particularly, a pandemic is a disaster that can cause different crises: crises in the health care, social, political, economic, and other systems. It can also lead to psychological and other more personal crises. Hence, although the concepts of crisis and disaster share some similarities, they are not the same and should not be treated as such.
In addition to the misleading intertwining of these concepts, and with its constant and circular repetition, it has almost become true that nothing will be the same after this pandemic. In economic, political and social terms, the world will be different.
This change represents a similarity shared by disaster and crisis. However, this is shared by every disturbance of a relatively stable state, which is intended to revert back to its original state. Similarly, our efforts to overcome the disaster – including our technology-based efforts, such as the use of tracking technology or AI – may be explained in terms of our intention to revert our socio-economic system back to its prior “normal” state. But the question is why we should revert our system back to what used to be normal?
First of all, is it even possible that the situation will be the same as before? It is questionable, for instance, if patients, after having recovered from an injury or a serious illness, are truly the same as before, or whether they just have the impression that they have returned to their previous “ideal” state of health .
It is precisely the lack of response to these issues that leads to crises in many spheres of life, whereas the disease itself, the current pandemic, is not a crisis in the strict sense but a disaster. Post-disaster recovery has been researched well enough and its consequences are mostly known and explored. Specific protocols have even been developed for dealing with it. This knowledge should be used in order to avoid having to face more crises than necessary after a disaster.
Like any disaster, this one will have its own specificities that are already the subject of research, and while the distinction between the concepts of crisis and disaster may appear as only a minor aspect, it may very well be considered a necessary step in understanding and addressing the future challenges that surely come after today’s battle with the pandemic. I submit that the distinction between disaster and crisis is key to understanding (not only) the current pandemic, and I propose further to defend this conceptual thesis and examine its practical implications from a sociological, political, ethical, and medical point of view.
 Zack, N., 2009. Ethics for Disaster, Rowman and Littelfield, Lanham MD. pg. 7.
 Barton, A. H., 2005. “Disaster And Collective Stress”, in Perry, R.W. and Quarantelli, E. L. (eds.), What is a Disaster. New Answers to Old Question, pp. 125 – 152, USA : International Research Committee on Disasters.
 Frank, A. W., 1995. The Wounded Storytellers: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: The University Chicago Press.
The text was written during the state of emergency in the Republic of Serbia. I am grateful for very helpful comments from my colleagues Dr. Katja Stoppenbrink (University of Münster) and Dr. Michael Kühler (Twente University).
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