Covid-19 and the End of the Beginning // John-Paul Smiley

The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic has to date (April 2020) resulted in more than a million cases and over 110,000 deaths worldwide, with little sign of abating. This short piece offers some emerging, partial thoughts on what I imagine to be the likely societal impacts of this going forward. I want to suggest that this event will come to be recognised as instrumental in the genesis of one of what Giddens has referred to as ‘episodes’, that is, ‘…a process of social change which have a definite direction and form, in which definite structural transformations occur’ (Giddens: 1981: p. 95). This will mark the beginning of a new period in human history, one in which societies will become increasingly interconnected and ‘closed’, with surveillance technologies becoming ubiquitous and eventually normalized. But that this emergence will occur slowly over the next several decades, only clearly manifesting in the latter half of the century. The more immediate global response being one which sees concurrent increases in global cooperation and the retreat to, and reinforcement of, nation-states, with societies attempting to return to prevailing conceptions of ‘normality’ and social order, in-keeping with already predominant cultural forms of ontological security, which Croft suggests stems from, ‘…the need to construct biographical continuity…’ (Croft: 2012: p. 219). The complete transformational shift I estimate as likely to take approximately 82 years to become broadly institutionalized globally.

In the short-term, which I envisage as approximately 5-20 years from now, there will be an enhancement of the nation-state, whilst simultaneously an increase in global cooperation. For example, greater knowledge exchange regarding potential treatments and non-pharmaceutical interventions, as well as regular resource inventories between governments to enhance preparedness for any similar future event. It will be agreed that extensive data collection will be required and trusted private companies will be partnered with to facilitate this. At the same time, nation-states are likely to implement modest buttressing of welfare safety nets, whilst becoming stricter with regards border controls, with countries implementing greater monitoring of citizens and restrictions on foreign nationals. These are to include ubiquitous facial recognition, temperature screenings and previous location recording and monitoring. A consequence of this will be a short-term rise in xenophobia and nationalistic tendencies. These exceptions notwithstanding, there will appear little more in terms of significant changes to the daily life of citizens in most countries. This will be made the more so by integrating emerging and already existing technologies where possible, so as to give the impression of negligible additional technological intrusion. But this should not be taken as suggestive of any conspiratorial machinations. Rather, it is likely as citizens across all divides and classes in societies attempt to return to their specific versions of ‘normality’, in-keeping with their already existing configurations of ontological security. This is likely as, unless the pandemic stretches across decades itself, a highly unlikely scenario, social systems will tend to return to their previous approximations in response to external disruptions, and so the world will look much the same as before. This is because, as Giddens has pointed out, ‘A stable social order is one in which there is a close similarity between how things are now and how they used to be in the past’ (Giddens: 1981: p. 91). It is to be action, then, in the service of already-existing orders.

But what of the longer-term? As Adam reminds us, ‘The empty and open future is an illusion’ (Adam: 2006: p. 8). Whilst any particular future is not certain, trajectories can be considered more or less probable given contemporary conditions. With that said, where might we be heading? I suggest that the longer-term, 20 years plus, will be characterised by increasing technological creep and surveillance into all facets of daily life, to the extent that it becomes normalised amongst a very great majority of citizens, particularly in developed nations, and in China and Russia. For example, ‘Alexa’ type devices, CCTV, and body scanning technologies becoming ubiquitous. Once this occurs, I suggest that a combination of the proliferation of the Internet-of-Things, wearable and/or bodily data collection tools, and nascent national/international ‘social credit systems’ will be integrated and utilised in order to facilitate greater behavioural compliance from citizens in preparation to respond to future pandemic waves, which, as Grzymski argues, requires, ‘…both a character of a sprint and a marathon’ (Grzymski: 2020: p. 9). The longer-term impact of this going forward will be profound, with the greater integration between humans and their socio-technical environment making subtle tunings and retunings to the rhythms of daily collective life. Other regions, in particular the countries of Africa and Latin America, are likely to lag behind in this regard, somewhere in the region of 20-30 years. This will lead to more stringent travel regulations for persons from said regions, unless they are celebrities or dignitaries, or their governments have partnered with trusted countries, who will adhere to internationally recognised and agreed minimum standards and protocols, with clear divides emerging internationally between countries and citizens in terms of trust and status. And although there is potential for different versions of the future to come to pass, it will likely take significant and sustained political mobilisation from groups who have otherwise had little recent political success, for example Green and/or Working-Class groups, to bring about a wildly different one. For whilst futures are socially co-created, the process is always shaped by existing power relations and inequalities, with some social actors possessing greater influence than others. Through these realizations we can appreciate Adam’s (2006) statement that, ‘…there are process futures already in progress, that there are futures on the way, futures that have reality status even if they have not yet materialized into phenomena…’ (Adam: 2006: p. 8).

To end, let us return to Barbara Adam once again and her point that, ‘…the shaping of the future is an inescapably socio-political act which belongs to the realm not of science but of morals and ethics’ (Adam: 2008: p. 7). The sketches here, then, represent what I imagine to be a probable future scenario, with the short-term being characterised by a simultaneous increase in global cooperation in the name of security and order, and a retreat to, and reinforcement of, nation-states, whilst the longer-term sees a massive increase in surveillance technologies and global interconnectedness, which will become normalised and internalised by the majority of citizens in populaces across the world. Social researchers who find such a vision of the future dystopian will need to offer convincing alternative suggestions as to how to best balance and protect privacy, security, and liberty from future pandemic, or other threats to global public health, in the absence of greater surveillance, but I believe they will be found wanting. Instead, despite simplistic protestations which decry any semblance of duty and responsibility ascribed to citizens as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘fascist’, it will become accepted that, ‘…a good society does not favor the social good over individual choices or vice versa; it favors societal formations that serve the two dual social virtues in careful equilibrium’ (Etzioni: 1996: p. 27). In the long march of human existence, then, this event will come to be seen as the end of the beginning.

John-Paul Smiley is a writer and social researcher. He has a PhD in Civil and Building Engineering (Loughborough, UK), an MSc Social Research (Leicester, UK), and a BA Politics and Sociology (York, UK). His interests include futurism and science fiction, as well as politics and sociology. He tweets at @JohnPaulSmiley

References:

Adam, B. (2006) ‘Futurescapes: Challenges for Social and Management Sciences’, Retroscapes and Futurescapes – Temporal Tensions in Organisations International Conference, Palazzo d’ Aumale, Terrasini, 21-23 June, 2006.

Adam, B. (2008) ‘Of Timescapes, Futurescapes and Timeprints’, Paper presented at Lueneburg University, 17 June 2008.

Croft, S. (2012) ‘Constructing Ontological Insecurity: The Insecuritization of Britain’s Muslims’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 219-235.

Etzioni, A. (1996) The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, New York: Basic Books.

Giddens, A. (1981) ‘Time and Space in Social Theory’ in J. Matthes [Ed.] Lebenswelt und socialze Probleme: Verhandlungen des 20. Deutschen Soziologentages zu Bremen 1980, pp. 89-97, Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verl.

Grzymski, J. (2020) ‘“New Times”. How Do We Experience Time In A Global Epidemic?’, Discover Society, 1st April 2020. Available at: https://discoversociety.org/2020/04/01/new-times-how-do-we-experience-time-in-a-global-epidemic/