The social disruption of COVID-19

The central question for sociologists is what is society. They tend to answer in terms of families and institutions, work and leisure, class hierarchy and status, and cultural attributes such as values, traditions and beliefs. But it is only with massive social disruption, such as that caused by COVID-19, that a clearer picture begins to emerge of the dynamic whole.

The central question for sociologists is what is society. They tend to answer in terms of families and institutions, work and leisure, class hierarchy and status, and cultural attributes such as values, traditions and beliefs. But it is only with massive social disruption, such as that caused by COVID-19, that a clearer picture begins to emerge of the dynamic whole.

The virus has exposed how precarious are so many of the things we take for granted; the complex web of connection that holds a ­society together and allows it to function. The orderly daily flow of business, schools, travel, footy games, local shops, cafes and restaurants, even small gatherings of friends, suddenly seems to be built on a minefield, ready to explode.

It is a truism that happiness is best known when it has been lost. Likewise with understanding and appreciation of the extraordinary organism that is a well-functioning society, like ours. As the tissues tear and the wind goes out of the sails, we can but marvel at the way it was — this gargantuan concatenation of organising and servicing, of trading and travelling, of working and playing, of building and creating, of meeting and co-operating. Somehow a place is found for almost everybody, where they can be useful, employing their talents and enthusiasms, to play their part in the life of the whole. How this happens is a ­mystery, as if some benevolent ­all-seeing intelligence was at work ­behind the scenes.

There is no Big Brother; indeed, free-market capitalist democracy is particularly suited to enabling the continuing dynamism of our social organism. A magical symbiosis is at work, between, on the one side, the creative adaptability and good sense of the individual, and on the other, the receptivity of inherited institutions and customs — led, I suspect in our case, by the common law tradition deeply ­infiltrated into the dispositions of people and establishments.

Shakespeare summed up his own final vision of society, in The Tempest, providing a metaphysical cast:

These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits,


Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-tapped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall ­dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial ­pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on;

Yes, but the gloomy side of anxiety is missing in this upbeat celebration of life as performance and dream. The dissolution of the gorgeous palaces is, in reality, frightening to behold; that the pageant of life may be insubstantial is a truth likely to induce unease rather than poetic resignation; and that all that has held our lives ­together, in a meaningful and coherent orderly flow, suddenly melts into air, is cause for apprehension, even dread.

Indeed, there is a darker undercurrent of hopeless existential angst to Shakespeare’s vision.

The virus is already causing its own melting of seemingly substantial things into air. To walk down any local shopping street today is to observe the danger to enterprise and livelihood, accelerated, as if unfolding by the minute — a sign that things are far from normal. There were already empty shops for lease but, one can sense, the vacancies will rapidly proliferate as if by contagion. There are restaurants that were already struggling, now empty. Cafes, pubs and bars are on the brink of the same financial precipice.

There are the closed travel agencies — Flight Centre shut 100 offices a week ago. There are the clothing stores, already struggling because of online shopping, now desolate. In the CBDs, offices will soon be completely empty, like cinemas.

There are, furthermore, unfathomable hidden consequences set to slowly play out. The stock market has lost more than a third of its value, bringing acute financial hardship to many self-funded retirees, serious damage to superannuation funds, and pain to tens of thousands of the better-off, which should flow through into the property market, which itself may plummet. Such a cataclysmic drop in shares serves also to bring into focus the sheer ephemerality of taken-for-granted things — another troubling enigma exposed under the spotlight which switches on when disaster tears us out of normal everyday complacency. Billions of dollars have simply disappeared into thin air, as if they never existed, as if some magic wand has cast a malevolent spell (we do live in the age of Harry ­Potter).

There are large-scale public manifestations of the collapse of normal society. The Formula 1 teams arrived in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix a week ago — yes, it was but a week ago, time too seems to have radically accelerated. They got their powerful thundering machines going, then had to switch them off, pack up and flee back home. Football games will be played on an empty MCG before 100,000 non-existent, non-screaming fans — a kind of ghost match. That is, until the teams themselves come down with the virus. Anzac Day parades will lapse. Airports are empty, the normal rushing horde of passengers streaming into lounges, out of gates, stilled; and the huge jets themselves, used to working busily from one flight to the next, as crews turn over, are themselves being taxied into hangers to be mothballed — these giant marvels of modern technology but useless, cold and empty carcasses, emblematic of the times we are rapidly spiralling down into.

There is local small-scale community damage too. Kids’ soccer clubs, reading groups, Saturday golf competitions, church services, weekend picnics, all of which provide communal glue and facilitate individual wellbeing, are disappearing by the day.

The economic costs will be easier to count than the social ones. Gathering together in public is an essential part of belonging and is important for social cohesion, morale and mental health.

Neighbourliness and civility are at stake. Neighbourliness today is complemented by coming together from different parts of a city, drawn to the bright lights, the crowds, and the hubbub to participate in a shared passion — a cultural event, football or charity runs. The experience engenders feelings of fraternity, belonging ­together, common understanding and warm attachment to place.

All that is now moribund. This will be particularly hard on those who live alone, tend to be lonely, and already have few means for socialising. And hard on those worried about unemployment and mortgage payments; not to mention worried about getting sick.

The sheer rapidity of change is marked on every front, as in empty supermarket shelves. The abandoned streets to be witnessed in European cities have not happened here — yet. One of the compounders of worry is the uncertainty of what is to come, an uncertainty also to be observed in some political leaders. We are in the stage of the Phony War, which ran from September 1939, after Britain and France (and Australia) declared war on Germany, but before fighting actually began eight months later. This is the phase of eerie stasis, fearing that something diabolical is coming, but not knowing what, its scale, or when. The irrational hoarding of toilet paper is symptom, and symbol, of the blank fear that something is about to strike, of visceral, lethal potency.

As one example of the unknown on the horizon, we do not know the full consequences of schools closing for the rest of the year. How many parents will be forced to leave the workforce, ­especially with grandparents isolated? How will innately anarchic, restless and bored teenagers occupy themselves once freed from the civilising strictures of school?

Joseph Schumpeter termed the driving dynamic of a capitalist economy “creative destruction”. Normally, this is to be observed in the shopping street. One business goes broke and closes, to be replaced by another, say a cafe which redecorates the premises, installs a kitchen, tables and chairs, all of which requires entrepreneurial ambition, energy and the capacity to borrow money; diverse people find employment; a new gathering place has been created. Here is the Keynesian multiplier at work: money in this pocket buys goods there, which employs others, who spend that money, and so on, contributing to economic buoyancy.

With the virus, an antithetical logic is activated. The multiplier turns into a deflator. There will be negligible creation in the coming months, even years, while the pandemic lasts. Worse, confidence and energy are rapidly ebbing out of the social system, like sand out of an hourglass. The buzz and fizz that provide a city with its attractive vibrancy are being frozen. John Maynard Keynes famously coined the metaphor of “animal spirits” as the key to a flourishing modern economy. Creative destruction and animal spirits make a formidable analytical pair.

What of leadership? The central banks of the Western world exemplify mindless panic, rushing to cut interest rates, which is not just futile — animating no spirits — but adds further to the sense of impending disaster. Fortunately, our chief medical officers and leading politicians have been acting with more prudence and calm.

Parallels with the Great Depression come to mind. Indeed, what we are experiencing is a mix of the 1930s and World War II, with the worst of both, thankfully, absent. The current economic collapse, and resulting stone-cold animal spirits, is reminiscent of Depression — the war, by contrast, boosted industry. The closing of borders, cancellation of travel, and suspiciousness of aliens is reminiscent of wartime. On the other hand, we have the great benefit today of IT and the internet, enabling work, school, university, and socialising to continue as individuals go into isolation.

Of course, Australia will bounce back, but probably not for a while. After the destruction will follow the creation. It may be a slow recovery rather than a bounce. Many small businesses will never return. Many customs and habits will have withered ­beyond recovery. Another malign consequence may be that the tendency to live more of life online will have been reinforced, and with it a concomitant reduction in ­social gathering and intercourse.

The tissues of belonging, the frayed fabric of society, the ­cradling wrap of social cohesion, the great globe itself, may have been irretrievably weakened. It is hard to see good in any of this.

Originally published by The Australian.

Read more COVID-19 opinions and expertise from La Trobe academics here