Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Mediating Covid - Covid-19 as a Global Risk and Global Chance
Svetlana Hristova, associate professor in cultural sociology and anthropology, the South-West University, Bulgaria
The End of Liquid Modernity?
For over three decades, our turbulent times became life as usual. All of a sudden it turned virulent, and human existence changed overnight. The fluid, ‘liquid’ modernity, to use Bauman’s metaphor , is now immobilized. Not only did the reasons to travel lose their importance in the face of threats to life, but the core of our culture – the idea of how to live together – is dramatically questioned today. As the architect and activist Porie Saikia wrote on Facebook on April 2nd 2020: “We fell asleep in one world, and woke up in another. Suddenly Disney is out of magic, Paris is no longer romantic, New York doesn't stand up anymore, the Chinese wall is no longer a fortress, and Mecca is empty. Hugs & kisses suddenly become weapons, and not visiting parents & friends becomes an act of love. Suddenly you realise that power, beauty & money are worthless, and can't get you the oxygen you're fighting for”.
What was valued for five centuries since the advent of modernity – the borderless enterprise, the tireless search for new discoveries, lands, markets, profits, experiences, pleasures - now is put under quarantine. And for how long? Nobody could be certain. Not only is social distancing the new way of reaffirming social bonds, but also the whole lifeworld is affected. Just in the three months after the virus explosion in the faraway Wuhan, sociability and mobility turned globally into a potential threat which had to be radically terminated. Since mid-March 2020, when European countries began massively imposing restrictions to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), just in a month over 90 percent of passenger aviation had been grounded. Its machines fill the airport stands, hangars and runways. The Bulgarian journalist and pilot Alexander Bogoyavlenski, who flies to destinations all over Europe and beyond, describes the sight of empty passenger terminals as ominous: the airports were ghostly, with empty check-in counters for passengers and land-locked airplanes, as evidence of a situation, unthinkable few days before. Even now, despite the good prospects for recovery, COVID-19 remains existential crises for airports, these still vacant temples of the bygone times of hyper-mobility.
The mobility turn, proclaimed 15 years ago by Kevin Hannam, Mimi Scheller and John Urry in the editorial of the first issue of the Mobilities journal, is now put on standby, because mobilities are “centrally involved in […] moving risks and illnesses across the globe, altering travel, tourism and migration patterns” .
In spite of the warnings, made since the mid-1980s by some of the most authoritative sociologists of our time like Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Jürgen Habermas, societies were caught by surprise. What was once affected and reshaped by global mobilities – nations, cities and local governments, public and private spaces, economic and welfare institutions, equally as the life of different generations, their families and homes – with the spread of the disease needed urgent reorganisation. The governments are still solving the most difficult equation with two unknowns – to restore the health of nations, while maintaining the health of economies. This is a challenge for citizens too. In times of mobility, people have learnt to stay connected at a distance; now they learn to stay disconnected at home, and to recall life in close proximity.
Coronavirus as a Global Risk
What started with 18 cases in remote Wuhan in December 2019, 18 months later escalated to more than 153,300,000 confirmed cases of infected people, and more than 2,200,000 deceased throughout the whole world. The good news is that there are almost 116,000,000 healed. This information changes dynamically each day. Now the risks of the new, reflexive modernity – Ulrich Beck’s influential concept – are not just an academic topic, but also a painful lesson for humanity to learn. Beck conceived such risks as by-products of late modernisation: in the long run, they turn global, unpredictable and unescapable; sooner or later they also strike those who produce or profit from them, because they occur around ‘systematic causes’ that coincide with the motor of progress and profit .
Among numerous hypotheses and conspiracy theories about the appearance of this dangerous new disease, the Bulgarian sociologist and anthropologist Jana Tsoneva offers a more complex explanation in an interview to Bulgarian National Radio, looking for a cause-and-effect chain of economic processes disturbing the balance of ecosystems: in China the large scale food production, accelerated after 2008 by US investment banks, lead to the failure of small farmers and their consequent pushing into deep forests in search of supply for game markets, where they meet not only wild animals but new pathogens as well. Whatever are the details of the emergence of Coronavirus, there is no doubt that it belongs to one of those side-effects of late modern development of risk society.
The present global threat of Covid-19 evokes new consciousness of solidarity, moving from solidarity of needs, typical for class-based societies, to solidarity, motivated by anxiety, typical for risk society, as defined by Beck . The public sphere is buzzing with messages of mutual encouragement and numerous acts of support. Various influential voices from different professional and political settings unite in their concerns and visions. In his special Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27th2020, Pope Francis proclaimed that only together may we overcome the crisis: “…we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this”.
Almost at the same time, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, calls for universal peace and solidarity to address the global threat: “Our world faces a common enemy: Covid-19. The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith. It attacks all, relentlessly”. Very meaningfully, Guterres correlates two global disasters (“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”), and asks for “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world, […] to focus together on the true fight of our lives”. This kind of emerging consciousness of solidarity is defined by Beck as negative and defensive. While the idea of common good remains diluted, the idea of “common bad”  acts as a strong, and perhaps the only possible, mobilizing factor, the new ‘social glue’ of the world today.
The Post-Coronavirus World
The current pandemic in all its manifestations is a big rehearsal of possible global risks tomorrow. Going virtual in a viral world seems by now a satisfactory solution. Digital work, electronic markets, on-line lectures and conferences, virtual relating while physical distancing – this is a temporary escape, but it could not be a permanent salvation, just as internet agora cannot substitute the excitement of public parks and squares. Simultaneously, for the first time in decades, some kinds of manual lower-income labour became more expensive – those which cannot be digitised. Finally, digitisation may pose danger associated with the increased tracking of individual data and hyper-policing.
The virus is a test not only for institutions, but for democracy itself. In Bulgaria there have been noticed disturbing signs of creeping autocracy: starting with the dismissal of journalists from national TV and radio in April 2020 and ending with police violence against participants in more than an-year-long national anti-government anti-corruption protests. This threat is valid for both, new and old democracies. Not long ago, a new term was coined in America as criticism of such development – medical fascism or hygienic fascism. The almost ubiquitous strikes flaring up in different parts of the world for different reasons, but certainly sparked by Covid-19 neuroticism, reassure us about the ephemeral but still growing relationship between the threats to our health and the threats to democracy. Even when life returned back to its old routines, as reported by the BBC from China in August 2020, when youngsters were eager to throw themselves into rediscovering the Wuhan Happy Valley, the daily urban life on the streets and parks, offices and public malls, theatres and cinemas, looked unbearably still: all precautions have been taken – by citizens and authorities – to escape the return of the disease. “Life as before” is now at half capacity.
No doubt, the present medicalization of human life and social relationships will have longstanding consequences on our future. This refers not only to the emerging new normal of ubiquitous safety measures, as a strange combination between virus resistance and culture’s endurance. Wearing masks is the most obvious manifestation not just of the continuing internal anxiety of possible (re)infection, but also a sign of an evolving shared concern for health as a public value. At a deeper level, this process involves redesign of all facets of modern civilisation: cities and public spaces; offices and homes; modes of transport; medical services and schools. Ultimately, it will affect even the forms of emotive expression, sympathy, and love. In this entirely new epistemological situation where literally the whole world has turned into a “research field”, we all are strangers living in a constantly changing referential system determined by uncertainty: what was inviting before like places of mass co-experience in arts, sports, festivities, now spells out danger.
Depending on the specific conditions, possibilities can be opened for new urban dynamics. Small cities can attain new attractiveness as big cities’ density and mass transport proved to be at the expense of safety and people’s lives, as assumed in a recent debate between Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida. Briefly, the global pandemic is a challenge to establish a more sustainable model of urban development, based on resetting the direction of urbanization, by “taking the pressure off the largest urban centres and building up smaller towns and cities, more closely integrating them with their rural hinterlands”, as proposed more than 30 years ago in the visionary report “Our Common Future” .
Obviously, the pandemic has exposed all flaws in contemporary civilisation. The EU discussion about minimum income systems as an urgent safety net after Covid-19 questions not the welfare system efficiency but the capitalist logic of development. The strategic dilemma is therefore not just to establish new balance between rich and poor countries; big and small cities and regions, but between the profit-driven and safety-driven models of thinking and acting.
Certainly this could be a very creative time. The history of mass illnesses offers numerous proofs. To mention just few of them: Boccaccio’s Decameron, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica which revolutionised natural science and lead to the present world. We can expect in the years to come new technological breakthroughs and further acceleration of life-speed, even though in more cautious and re-bordered societies. The most important challenge, however, will be to create the framework for a new kind of modernity: the current global crisis can be a benign impetus for transition from reflexive modernity, preoccupied with its own anxieties, to responsible modernity, which has discovered the formula of sustainable development through well-defined global solidarity.
 Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid Modernity. Polity Press.
 Hannam, K., Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006). Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings. Mobilities, 1(1): 1–22 (2).
 Beck, U. (1992) . Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage.
 Hristova, S. (2018) Public space in a global world: after the spectacle (2018), in: Hristova S. and Czepczisky M. (eds) Public Space: Between Re-Imagination and Occupation. Routledge, 31-49 (36).
 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our Common Future. Report of the Brundtland Commission. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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