Is there anything positive coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Social critics typically have the role of highlighting negative or problematic aspects of society, particularly when everything appears to be going well; however, during difficult, uncertain and chaotic periods of history, they can perform a potentially equally important role of pointing out positive changes that can emerge from a catastrophe. Is there anything positive coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic?
This paper highlights ten ways COVID-19 simultaneously exposes fundamental problems in societies and necessitates that we address them if we are all not to collectively suffer more now and later when another pandemic arrives. I recognize that some of these examples may seem to be mentioned too soon, the changes that have happened are possibly temporary, and this is by no means a complete list — though I do hope they will stimulate others to offer their own examples. I propose for a moment we view the “exogenous shock” of a virus as violently dislodging us from harmful patterns and structures in society and set us on a new path of progress toward a more humane society. But such changes will require enormous effort by all members of society to enable us to both cope with the crisis and (more importantly in the long run) better prepare us for another such shock in the future. Therefore, I use the word “could” rather than “may” because I believe that all I mention is hypothetically contingent upon whether we choose to make changes to our society that will make us more robust to a pandemic. Fortunately, I will mention several ways in which we have already immediately seen governments try resolving problems that they have ignored for years, which suggests that it is not so difficult to make progressive change but only requires the collective will to do so.
1. COVID-19 could further expand non-geographically bounded online communities and provide more opportunities to reduce loneliness.
Although physical distance is important to reduce the spread of a disease, loneliness is also emotionally and mentally harmful and can compromise the immune system – especially for stigmatized, disabled and elderly individuals that tend to be more isolated even in non-pandemic times. A growing number of individuals now need to learn how to live online by using technologies like zoom to create co-working spaces, parties, church services, alcoholics anonymous meetings and even academic seminars. They will thereby meet people they likely would not otherwise, which will aid and support them during future disasters. Due to their physical constraints and isolation, people may become less exclusionary and more open to new members that share common interests. This may also bridge gaps between social cliques and more effectively facilitate the exchange of information and ideas otherwise confined to local areas.
2. COVID-19 could foster intergenerational solidarity.
Solidarity is a concept that some trace back to the Catholic social philosophy and that relates to a commitment to the common good and altruism. Some argue that since elders are ceteris paribus more vulnerable to dying from the virus than younger people. This may foster intergenerational solidarity that has been in decline recently with resentment about intergenerational injustices and idealism between relatively older and younger generations. As elderly and on average wealthier individuals become more dependent on the younger to provide them with cleaning, transportation and food, relatively younger people in Western ageist societies may not only benefit economically but also learn to appreciate and respect their elders, their elders’ wisdom and life experience, and the very fragility of life.
3. COVID-19 could encourage society to recognize and remedy the digital divide.
The only limit to the above positive trends is that not everyone has access to such technologies. Yet this makes soon bridging the digital divide even more imperative, and may explain why universities and schools have begun pushing for long-term laptop loans and programs to provide internet access to the under-resourced. Finally, having the federal government fund and expand national coverage of wi-fi infrastructure to neglected and marginalized inner-city and rural areas of the country would further benefit and certainly accelerate economic productivity and increase equality of opportunity.
4. COVID-19 could largely and at least temporarily eliminate the problem of homelessness.
California recognized that homeless people, due to their exposure both to the outdoor urban environment and destitution, are extremely vulnerable to catching a disease. Previously, governments have done little to house them by taxpayers’ expense, in part because wealthy homeowners oppose the construction of affordable housing. But California has taken the lead in recognizing COVID-19 makes the lack of shelter and affordable housing a threat to public health. Governor Gavin Newsome in March of 2020 began purchasing hotels (which due to the severe drop in travel have not been profitable recently) to house the state’s roughly 130,000 homeless people.
5. COVID-19 could largely and temporarily abolish prisons and detention centers.
Relatedly, various officials in the criminal justice, immigration enforcement and refugee management systems have also realized that detaining massive amounts of people in prison, immigrant and refugee detention in such cramped and insanitary conditions is likely to exacerbate an outbreak, since many people that work in such institutions also go outside and will spread the disease they catch in such institutions. As the federal government scales back its Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations, some prison and detention abolitionists have intensified their demands to end such systems to protect public health. Some states have proposed releasing many older prisoners, which is sensible due to empirical research which has confirmed for decades that people commit crimes less as they grow older.
6. COVID-19 Could Encourage Governments To Provide Guarantees of Paid Sick Leave for All Workers.
As Fran Marion points out, for decades, over a million workers that prepare food for tens of millions of people daily have gone to work with contagious diseases like influenza — in large part because the industry only pays them around $12/hour. About 20% of food service workers living paycheck to paycheck cannot afford to stay home when sick. Companies like McDonalds say that they have started offering sick leave to quarantined workers, but this only applies to workers in corporate-owned companies, not workers at 95% of McDonald’s stores, which are franchises. Recently Congress moved to pass a bill that offers more sick leave, but only with respect to the COVID-19 virus (not the flu or future disease outbreaks) and only to companies that have less than 500 workers, which only covers 20% of workers. As the disease spreads through the population and kills more people, government officials may face greater pressure to follow the leads of companies like Darden Restaurants in ensuring that all paid employees receive sick leave.
7. COVID-19 could increase safety nets for aspiring homeowners, renters and workers.
In not only the US but also many European countries, governments have suspended mortgage payments, given evictions a moratorium, subsidized company payrolls to discourage dismissal of workers, and delayed taxes — relief that governments have not provided as much as in the past. We see pressures to offer unemployment insurance (which many gig workers lack), student loan forgiveness, rent payment-assistance, more food stamps, and preventing home foreclosures. Workers like those in increasingly important and risky occupations like retail, food preparation, healthcare and emergency services are especially vulnerable. For this reason progressive companies like United Natural Food have begun to offer them both monthly and hourly bonuses to their wages to attract more future employees.
8. COVID-19 could encourage a shift from in-kind to cash aid.
Historically, many legislators in government have preferred aid-in-kind (e.g. food stamps) over cash transfers, but many scholars and practitioners of economic development have found cash transfers to be more effective. Some have critiqued that greater cash transfers should primarily go to cash-strapped businesses and those that lose their jobs rather than those minimally affected by the virus, cash transfers can be more beneficial than traditional forms of aid if we have more targeted and well-thought out programs.
9. COVID-19 could demonstrate that border control and travel bans are ineffective for preventing the inevitable spread of disease and other problems.
Many have emphasized this because China — once it recognized COVID-19 as a problem — did its best to control internal migration and the other governments like the US blocked most travel from China so they had a bit more time to prepare. But such travel bans have both been economically damaging and futile at completely stopping the eventual global spread of the virus because many people can easily travel to other countries indirectly and many are asymptomatic. Such bans prevent the international flow of equipment and materials (e.g. masks, ventilators) necessary to stop the spread of the disease within countries. As a result, migration control has devolved to the level of the household, with state orders for people to “shelter in place,” which effectively obviate border controls and travel bans. When facing a virus, the only border that protects the individual is that between themselves and other individuals — and an imposition of this border can offer us a renewed appreciation of how harmful larger borders can be for those they exclude.
10. COVID-19 could convince societies that health care for all is so critical for the survival of everyone in the long run.
Historically many have conceptualized healthcare as an exclusionary, private individual commodity. This is even the case in societies that lack universal healthcare, which they frequently portray as a policy of individual justice. Despite diseases like HIV-AIDS, SARS and measles that periodically eradicate portions of populations, neoliberal governments have defunded public health programs for years so that they are quite vulnerable to disease outbreak. COVID-19 makes universal healthcare desirable, irrespective of any racial animus or classist beliefs that has prevented its adoption.
Nothing I have written above, again, is to disavow the fact that COVID-19 has had a tremendous negative impact on society, as it has destabilized the “normal” functioning of society and the economy. But it does reveal to us that much of what most people found to be “normal” about society was extremely problematic. Thomas Piketty demonstrated that historically inequality — one of the most pressing problems today — has decreased after major depressions and wars, and therefore COVID-19 may have a similar potential in the coming decades. Yet history also has demonstrated that after societies have recovered from such catastrophic shocks by implementing such social safety nets like the New Deal in the US, they have over time gradually dismantled them with neo-liberal reforms to increase individual “efficiency” and “freedom,” suggesting that history is cyclical rather than progressive, or even a one-step-forward-two-steps-back progression. But if one prefers to be optimistic and struggle to build a society in which a pandemic will not have such a catastrophic impact, one can see COVID-19 as an important historical example of why members of societies should both build and maintain a new structure of our society, politics and economy that when the next pandemic arrives, we are better prepared to resist it.
Jacob Thomas is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center on Contemporary China, Princeton University. He received his BA in Interdisciplinary Studies of globalization at UC Berkeley, his MA in Social Science at University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in Sociology at UCLA. His areas of specialty are in the sociology of law, international migration and mobility, and social stratification and inequality. His research has appeared in a variety of academic journals such as International Migration, Theory and Society, and Law &: The Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal.