The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a social stress test, too. Image: Pixabay / Tumisu

How is the coronavirus crisis changing our society?

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a social stress test, too. Three Helmholtz researchers discuss what this is doing to our society – and what we can learn from it.

The world is in the midst of a large-scale social experiment, and we’re not sure what the outcome will be. What impacts will the restrictions on social life have? How long can people endure basically being imprisoned in their homes? What arguments justify keeping children away from their peers, preventing grandparents from seeing their grandchildren, and making entire companies work from home?

Neuroscientist Katrin Amunts from Forschungszentrum Jülich has studied these questions extensively. As Vice Chair of the German Ethics Council, Amunts was involved in the preparation of the Council’s opinion, Solidarity and Responsibility during the Coronavirus Crisis. She emphasizes: “At the moment, we have to weigh up the rights and interests of different groups. The exceptional circumstances we’re currently facing are leading to incredible strain, and it’s practically inevitable that fundamental norms and rights will come into conflict with one another.” This includes, for example, conflicts between the basic right to freedom and the protection of individual citizens’ health. Amunts believes that governments are responsible for ensuring a balance so the restrictions don’t impact any social groups disproportionately or to an intolerable extent.

Until April 2020, Katrin Amunts of Forschungszentrum Jülich is Vice Chair of the German Ethics Council.
Image: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Enhancing acceptance and admitting what isn’t known

According to Amunts, the population will only accept restrictions if political decision-makers openly communicate the reasons for their actions and don’t withhold information. “The focus has to be on convincing people rather than dictating what they can and can’t do.” But this is all the more difficult when we’re dealing with an adversary we know relatively little about. Matthias Groß, Head of the Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) is well aware of this, too. He specializes in ignorance, which is unquestionably the biggest factor driving scientific progress. “The fact that we simply don’t know many things about the virus and its effects was communicated very effectively at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.”

Groß doesn’t find this problematic in the slightest. He says this type of transparency helps people understand the situation better, be patient, and respond with empathy: “It was astonishing how people accepted the restrictions, which were determined based on a lack of knowledge.” But Groß says he’s now seeing a lapse in this honest approach to communication and believes that this runs the risk of fueling conspiracy theories. “People are demanding truths that can’t be provided, and certainties are being communicated even though we can’t guarantee them.” According to Groß, this jeopardizes the solidarity our society needs right now in this exceptional situation.

Weighing up health impacts and psychosocial impacts

Katrin Amunts also fears that the powerful solidarity we’re seeing now could decline or be worn down. “If the burden isn’t shared fairly, or the balance is perceived as unfair, this could undermine social cohesion.” In the opinion published by the Ethics Council, the experts recommend that particular consideration be given to the psychosocial impacts of contact restrictions. “The risk of loneliness, feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, or helplessness and an increase in domestic violence are potential consequences that could arise due to extended isolation or reduced contact with others,” explains Amunts. For this reason, in its opinion the Ethics Council recommends that governments continually monitor whether the measures in force are truly necessary and appropriate. Amunts says that residents must be kept continually informed as to how long the contact restrictions are likely to go on for and what the return to normal life might look like. She emphasizes that every restriction placed on fundamental rights must be justified at every point in time.

Amunts thinks another important question is how much damage policymakers are willing to accept in all sectors of society, given that many people are also worried about their livelihoods, for example. “But it’s also clear that easing the restrictions too soon—and potentially losing control of the virus – would have even more severe impacts,” affirms the medical expert. “I have to wonder what willingly accepting a high number of fatalities would do to our society. We sometimes discuss this in very abstract terms, but ultimately, that’s what we are talking about.” For this reason, Amunts says our key focus has to remain on keeping the reproduction number under 1 and halting the increase in infections.

Lasting changes to society

A further problem is the fact that predictions on how long the crisis will go on for vary significantly – ranging from a few months to several years. Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to lasting changes in our society? “I personally think that it will,” says Amunts, “and I think a lot of other people feel the same.” She says this will reveal just how fragile our way of living is, but the crisis could also present an opportunity to strengthen the country and our society over the long term. “We’ll know what we can get through together,” Amunts believes.

In this same vein, we are also seeing some positive developments in society: The pace of life is slowing down, daily routines are less hectic, and there’s an increased awareness of the little things in life—and the development and application of digital technologies is accelerating in the fields of communication, work, and academia. Among those who welcome this shift is Armin Grunwald, Professor of Philosophy of Technology and Ethics of Technology at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT): “If you believe the critics who keep saying that we’re a developing country when it comes to digital technology, transferring our lives over to the digital world has gone surprisingly well.” Grunwald notes that the grid is naturally seeing high loads and not everything is running as quickly as we’d like, but ultimately, all the video conferences are also moving vast quantities of data. Within a week, we learned to use technologies we tended to view with suspicion before, he says – the skills were there. “But it’s also fairly evident that the Internet can’t do everything. Having 30 people discuss something on a video conference doesn’t work,” affirms Grunwald.

The end of analog versus digital

Digital tools are benefiting people in their personal lives as well. “People need contact with others in real time, too. Video calls are one way of doing this for a limited time and for people who know each other well.” But new, deep relationships can’t be formed this way. Ultimately, the Internet is just a replacement for things that people should ideally do in the analog world. As a philosopher of technology, Grunwald therefore also sees something positive in the whole situation: “The pointless debate about analog versus digital is one we won’t be having anymore after the coronavirus crisis. We’ll have learned to appreciate digital technologies and use them in a more conscious way to make our analog lives better.”

Recommendation of the German Ethics Council

29.04.2020 , Isabell Spilker

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