Sociological Reflections In Times Of Change And Uncertainty: Managing Risk, Trying To Adapt And Being Creative

CATARINA DELAUNAY

Covid-19 crisis is not democratic in the sense that it affects everyone equally regardless of age, gender, class, ethnicity or geographic area where one lives, as some try to defend. Containment measures were imposed based on the life style and living conditions of the middle class, without considering those with less capacity and means of protecting themselves against the new coronavirus. The inequalities of condition generate profound inequities in the face of the current global health crisis. In numerous families and/or with more precarious socioeconomic and housing conditions (without piped water and basic sanitation), it becomes more difficult to maintain hygiene rules, to ensure the source of income or to manage the co-presence in the same physical space. The situation is even more dramatic with regard to homeless people, where the street is their home. Likewise, attention needs to be paid to the lack of means to fight the pandemic in poorer countries, such as those on the African continent, with a greater lack of infrastructure in terms of healthcare and transport. In addition, there is a more violent impact of SARS-CoV-2 on the most vulnerable communities around the world, such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous people, ethnical minorities (the Roma communities in camps in Portugal, the Afro-American population in poor neighborhoods in the US or the favelas in Brazil). The virus thus reveals and even accentuates existing social inequalities, besides triggering xenophobia.

Nevertheless, social responsibility, a sense of community and a spirit of solidarity and mutual assistance in neighborhood relations are reinforced. In Portugal, younger neighbors and parish councils show availability to do pharmacy and/or grocery shopping and to walk the dogs of the most vulnerable people (due to old age or comorbidities) or those already infected with Covid-19. Furthermore, some city councils distribute meals to the neediest through the schools in the respective municipalities. Messages and hashtags on social networks proliferate in order to influence behaviors (#StayHomeSaveLives, #StaySafeStayHome #FlattenTheCurve, #SocialDistancing) or to instill motivation, associated with the rainbow symbol (#GonnaBeOk, #StayPositive).

There are expressions of togetherness, at a time of social distancing, and a sense of resistance and national unity during such a crisis. On April 25, people across Portugal, sang together, from their home windows, the Grândola Vila Morena, (for the celebration of the Carnation Revolution of 1974), while in Italy people did the same with Bella Ciao (on the anniversary of the Day of Liberation from fascism and Nazi occupation in 1945). The present time is therefore also made up of paradoxes, as evidenced by the celebration of the day of the conquest of freedom with restrictions on one’s own freedom.

In the education sector, daycare centers, schools and universities had to be closed but an urgent and fast transition has occurred. Non-classroom teaching models with recourse to information technologies have swiftly made possible for the education sector to function. It entailed a gradual adaptation of both teaching forms and content, and of teachers themselves to new distance learning tools and platforms. However, e-learning raises the problem of geographical disparities between the various educational establishments. It also exposes socio-economic inequalities between students, with regard to access to computer equipment and Internet connection or to their parents’ educational qualifications, thus reinforcing gaps in learning and accentuating situations of social exclusion. In fact, technology acts as a mediating element in professional and learning relationships, and must be framed and understood in the light of different social contexts.

With the increase in teleworking, e-learning and confinement, lifestyles, routines and daily practices have changed. The pressure on families increases, as the house becomes an office, a school and a leisure space. Parents, especially women, increase their efforts to comply with their professional obligations, childcare, monitor the learning of their children and carry out housework, as there is still a gender asymmetry. The family has to adapt to more complex, demanding and accelerated times. There is more time to spend with the family, especially the nuclear family that stays together in domestic confinement. At the same time, there is a breakdown of family support networks, which depended on the older and more vulnerable members (the grandparents) that now must be protected in these challenging times. In addition, confinement has an impact on marital dynamics, whether in accentuating conflicts (due to stress and emotional exhaustion) or in affective reunion. Hence people talking about covidivorces and coronababies. There are also increased concerns about the possible increase in domestic violence and child abuse resulting from lockdown and greater job insecurity. In addition, there is the dramatic situation of bereaved families who have not even managed to bury their dead.

At the individual level, especially for those who live alone and are exempted from family obligations, there may eventually be a slowing down in their daily rhythm and an increase in their personal time that invites reflection, reading and/or physical exercise at home, especially because gyms offer classes and tutorials online. However, this solitude can also have negative impacts on the emotional and psychological level and on the way we relate to others, emerging new feelings and thoughts such as fears and anxieties.

In my case, I acquired a kind of sociophobia, not in the sense of fearing a negative social assessment through interaction, but fearing that I might be infected by Covid-19 due to physical proximity to other people. I have mostly stayed at home and when I go on my punctual walks through the urban gardens close to my house, I get a mixture of dread and irritation when I cross paths with other people, always trying to keep a safe distance and automatically putting on my mask. The invisibility of danger, associated with asymptomatology, increases these fears. There are also those who suffer from changes in biological cycles such as insomnia and changes in appetite. However, and because maintaining social ties is essential, adapting to new times also involves creativity and the invention of new forms of sociability, as illustrated by the initiative to make friends’ dinners via WhatsApp or Skype.

The cultural and arts sector in Portugal was among the first to be affected, reaching mainly booksellers and publishers, museums, theaters, exhibitions halls and movie theaters, which were forced to close their doors. Despite the economic difficulties, individual or collective actions that reinforce empathy and solidarity in times of crisis prevailed. On the respective websites, the film producers made movies available free of charge, there are online broadcasts of theater plays, while museums and palaces offer virtual tours from your couch. Music artists are forced to cancel their already scheduled tours, but volunteer to do live concerts online from home, including joining festivals broadcast via social networks (Facebook and Instagram) or other sites. Nevertheless, some of them complain about the strangeness of the lack of interaction with the public, such as the absence of clapping and the silences between songs. Even in Portugal, several writers got together to jointly write a booklet in time of isolation (Bode Inspiratório).

Brands now face communication challenges at the marketing level. Some companies, especially the larger ones, disseminate messages of solidarity (“we’re gonna be OK”), as well as informational and guidance messages on how to best proceed with Covid-19 (for example, frequent hand washing). Social responsibility in companies is emphasized, which make food products available free of charge to health institutions or donate personal protective equipment. There are also those that restructure their activity in order to produce this type of products, as is the case of confection factories that started to manufacture protective masks or breweries that started to manufacture alcohol and disinfectant gel. However, there are also those who take advantage of these times of global health crisis and try to make a profit without looking at the means, as happened with the speculation crimes of some companies, which started selling masks and disinfectant gel at a price 400% above the average value.

In terms of science and research, from the field of medicine and virology to that of the social sciences and humanities, studies and research are multiplying. If some researchers strive to test new therapies or try to find a vaccine in record time, others seek to study the social, economic and psychological impact of the pandemic as it happens. However, and from my own experience, the Covid-19 crisis also had a negative impact on the research activities, especially in data collection and dissemination of results. Since universities have decided the suspension of face-to-face teaching, research and science management activities, researchers now have to work from home.

In view of the current situation, mainly due to the confinement measures to contain the virus, such as the circulation restrictions imposed by the state of emergency, limitations to the normal execution of the plan of research work within the scope of the various ongoing projects arose. Therefore, some researchers felt the need to contact their national funding agencies to warn of this situation, as these constraints will have a negative impact on the compliance of the objectives and indicators for the present year.

Researchers have created new work dynamics and come up with ways to overcome current constraints. In the case of the project that I coordinate, the strategy involved the daily exchange of messages by email or through a WhatsApp chat group with two other colleagues, so that this exceptional situation did not hinder team work. The undertaking of certain tasks, within the scope of the research work plan, required the analysis of the collected data (from the survey questionnaire and the interviews) and the submission of articles to scientific journals (with fixed deadlines). In the future, I also intend to use one of the multiple online platforms to hold occasional meetings with them.

At the current stage, the work plan of my project – as well as of many other colleagues – was still very much focused on data collection, namely through conducting ethnography in a hospital setting and interviews in various parts of the country. This would involve displacements at the national level that cannot be carried out at the moment, so the fieldwork is now suspended. Soon, we will choose to resume conducting interviews, now via Skype, although the beginning of the ethnographic work is still unknown. It is time to reinvent new objects of study and methodological devices. The current restrictions also implied the postponement or cancellation of participation in conferences and its replacement by online events, to be taken into account in terms of individual production indicators or in the scope of the projects.

Experts have said that nature is sending us a message and defended the urgency to shift the current paradigm from the anthropocentric perspective to an ecological approach characterized by a new relationship between mankind and the planet and all the other beings that inhabit it. The pandemic would be the result of human actions on the environment, from which climate change (global warming), the depletion of natural resources and the loss of biodiversity (with the extinction of some species) are the evidence. In the environmental field, there is already a reduction in pollution, namely a decrease in CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, due to the limited circulation of motor vehicles and, above all, the cancellation or suppression of many international flights. With the decrease in traffic and noise levels in cities, non-human life (animal and plant) returns to urban centers. We can now listen to flocks of birds or enjoy the wild flowers that proliferate in the greenest spaces of the city. However, there were also many fake news that announced, among other stories, the return of dolphins to the canals of Venice. This phenomenon is also partly explained by the need for people to see the positive side of crisis situations.

Hope this crisis will bring about a radical transformation in terms of individual behavior and even changes in mentality and posture towards oneself and others (greater reflexivity, civic awareness and social solidarity).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Research Fellow at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa (NOVA FCSH), Lisbon, Portugal.

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