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The Pandemic and our Place in the World

An essential truism inside catastrophe research is that every one disasters are human-made. What this perception conveys is that how individuals act – earlier than, throughout, after – performs an important position in shaping how a catastrophe unfolds, even when the set off is from nature. Accounts that forged ‘nature as the villain’ obscure how these occasions are the ‘product of particular social and political environments’.1 A tsunami is likely to be naturally occurring, however what prevention measures are in place beforehand, whether or not evacuation happens promptly and correctly, how authorities and communities react, these are all decisions individuals make that assist decide how harmful or damaging the tsunami shall be. Likewise, the COVID-19 virus itself is past human management, however the method the COVID-19 pandemic has advanced has been tremendously formed by the choices that individuals have made in response to the virus. From people to governments to worldwide organisations, the decisions individuals have made have been determinative in giving form to the nature and extent of the pandemic. What follows is that understanding how the pandemic has unfolded means contemplating the social and societal parts, how individuals have interpreted and responded to the virus, and by way of this, what impression the virus has had on the social world and our place in it.

In Naomi Zack’s forthcoming guide, The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020, she describes the pandemic as a social catastrophe, by which she signifies that the ‘disaster is not simply a natural entity or event, but the whole of that event and how it becomes integrated in human society’.2 Drawing on E.L. Quarantelli’s work,3 Zack emphasises that the uneven and complicated expertise with the pandemic, its immediacy, impression, significance, period and associated options are all strongly variable based mostly on who you might be, and the place you might be, each in a geographical sense and in a socio-economic sense. This complicates the job of discovering wider societal which means, as the expertise with the pandemic has been so disparate. Between totally different nations, but additionally inside societies and communities, what the pandemic has meant has various tremendously. For some, it has been actually world shattering, at its most speedy, dying, but additionally severe impairment, and the lack of livelihood or employment; for others, it has been a supply of stress and concern, whereas the speedy impression has been extra one in all discomfort; and for the fortunate ones, it has truly been a boon, with day-to-day inconvenience being offset by positive aspects made by the modifications triggered by the pandemic. And so, the method every of us have skilled this liminal second has been markedly totally different; strongly formed by who and the place we’re, bodily and socio-economically. One consequence that follows from that is that the method we’re making sense and deciphering the pandemic is much from uniform, reflecting these appreciable variations.

In contemplating the ramifications of COVID-19, it’s essential to foreground the speedy price in phrases of lack of life, as the dying toll of the pandemic continues to grind in direction of 2.5 million individuals. Each dying has which means, and cumulatively these losses pull at the threads of our world. James Boyd White conveys this level superbly, ‘whenever anyone dies … a world of possibility dies with him or her, a web of relationships of caring and concern. A part of the fabric of humanity and human community has been torn to bits.’4 As the deaths mount up, extra potentialities, reminiscences and connections disappear from our world. After the pandemic passes, left in its wake shall be the harm it has brought on, every dying reshapes the lives of those that stay, and collectively these losses reverberate by way of society. How these deaths are understood, whether or not duty for them is assigned, how they’re memorialised; these and different methods the pandemic turns into a part of collective reminiscence is a vital characteristic of it as a social catastrophe.

Viewing the pandemic as a social catastrophe incorporates greater than the lives misplaced and these sickened by the virus. It additionally means coming to phrases with the method the catastrophe has reshaped individuals’s understanding of themselves and their world. As Zack explains, ‘this is what it means to say that disaster is socially constructed – certain changes in society should be viewed as part of a disaster and not merely an effect of a disaster.’5 Disaster can problem and change individuals’s views on life and the method they have interaction with one another, and with the world. Indeed, the method in which a pandemic can do that is captured in a robust account of the plague offered in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War: ‘Anything which is sudden and unexpected and utterly beyond calculation […] enthralls the spirit of a man’.6 During extra regular intervals, we work with linear maps of life; as time marches ahead, so will we, with some expectation that we are able to extrapolate the future from the current and previous. For many, this was shaken or damaged by COVID-19. It is not only the current that we expertise in another way, it could result in questioning and reinterpreting the previous, with earlier choices now wanting radically totally different. It can paint the future in a unique mild, with plans stalled and uncertainty over what comes subsequent.

Put strongly, it’s potential to say that the pandemic has triggered a form of ontological chaos, in which individuals’s sense of self and their relation with the world has been thrown into turmoil. Many of the key markers that orientate our lives and our locations in the world have been impacted. In addition to life and well being, COVID-19 has destroyed livelihoods, led to lack of earnings and employment, separated individuals from members of the family and family members, altered how we work together with others. Collectively, when the markers by which we orientate ourselves in the world are eliminated, and the tales we inform about ourselves begin to unravel, it could create a way of disorientation and give rise to troublesome questions on which means, objective and place in the world.

This ontological chaos is paired with epistemological chaos, as individuals battle to know what’s true, what they’ll consider. This is partly because of the pandemic itself, throughout which actuality has continually gone past the bounds of what was beforehand thought-about possible or potential. Shoshana Zuboff makes use of the thought of ‘epistemic chaos’ particularly to explain the penalties of what she phrases ‘surveillance capitalism’ interacting with the pandemic.7 She argues that massive tech by way of ‘profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information’ have fractured our skill to grasp and interpret the world. The penalties have been to ‘splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death’. Zuboff is appropriate to level to the distinctive and pernicious position performed by social media, however the epistemic chaos unleashed by the pandemic is a broader phenomenon. Many authorities and establishments shifted in pronouncements and insurance policies, science and data about COVID-19 has superior in an incomplete and haphazard method, threat communication has been radically uneven in phrases of accuracy and high quality. When all of these items are mixed with the forces Zuboff identifies, the result’s rising uncertainty about what’s true. Writing in the context of the American expertise with COVID, Rusty Ginn means that, ‘what about the stories we tell about our global institutions, our shared values, and our own orthodoxies and authorities? Those stories are dying. They are dying because the institutions built on those stories failed us all, and all at once.’8 Combined, these experiences generate a way of confusion and unease, with the discovery that in sure methods, actuality is extra malleable, and circumstances extra changeable, than we had tended to assume.

The form of points being mentioned right here, particularly the ontological and epistemological chaos let free by the pandemic, undoubtedly impacts us all as people. We are usually not immune from the fears and the confusion, the persistent sense of uncertainty and unease, nor are we essentially shielded from the many impacts it has had on each day life. In addition, we should think about incorporate and reply to the pandemic in our roles as students and academics of world politics. The pandemic really connects to most aspects of life, and thus most fields of data. From safety to ethics, statecraft to diplomacy, commerce to finance, the pandemic has had far-reaching ramifications for the elements of world politics we examine. Coming to grips with the extra speedy penalties, whereas figuring out and working by way of the many second and third order results shall be obligatory in the years forward. We are actually residing in attention-grabbing instances, as the saying goes, and the method in which the pandemic has labored to hurry up and make clear current points and dynamics means that the world is prone to solely get extra attention-grabbing.

Returning to the thought of COVID-19 as a social catastrophe, the pandemic is a catastrophe that’s one in all our making, the method it has developed is a mirrored image of the decisions which have been made: individually, collectively, and by these charged with operating and administering our societies. By understanding such occasions as purely pure phenomena, human company is ignored, each in reference to creating and stopping vulnerabilities. The form and route of the pandemic is tremendously influenced by our particular person and collective decisions. A very acute instance of that is how vaccines are actually being rolled out. According to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been ‘wildly uneven and unfair’, noting that 10 nations have administered 75% of all vaccinations, and that 130 nations have but to obtain any vaccine doses.9 What this implies is that when and how this pandemic will finish will differ tremendously based mostly on who and the place you might be in the world. This is emblematic of the extra basic level about COVID-19 being a social catastrophe, a perspective that reminds us of the position of human behaviours and choices proceed to play in the route and nature of the pandemic, and the way it will proceed to develop going ahead.

The social world seems like a snow globe that has been shaken, and as the snowflakes slowly settle, it is going to be simpler for us to recognise that contained actuality. For now, although, it’s troublesome to see clearly. While recognising this, it stays essential and obligatory that we attempt to come to grips with this ontological and epistemological chaos by way of our analysis and instructing, to search for methods to make sense of what the pandemic means for us and our world. Writing in 1975, Hannah Arendt advised that ‘we may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut off the past.’10

Across historical past there actually have been many false begins and incomplete transitions, corresponding to when Arendt made this remark. Nonetheless, the basic level holds, and there are lots of indicators that the pandemic could really be one such turning level. We won’t know till Minerva’s owl has taken flight, however as these shades of gray change into extra pronounced in the night sky, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what this all may imply, and what half we are able to play in responding to the ontological and epistemological turmoil the pandemic has let free on the world.

1Ted Steinberg, Acts of god: the unnatural historical past of pure catastrophe in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 118.

2Naomi Zack, The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, forthcoming 2021).

3E. L. Quarantelli, ‘What Is Disaster? The Need for Clarification in Definition and Conceptualization in Research,’ University of Delaware Disaster Research Center, Article #177, 1985, pp. 41-73.

4James Boyd White, Living Speech: Resisting the Empire of Force (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 3.

5Zack, The American Tragedy of COVID-19 Social and Political Crises of 2020.

6Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, guide 2.

7Shoshana Zuboff, The Coup We Are Not Talking About, New York Times, 29 January 2021:

8Rusty Ginn, ‘First the People’, Epsilon Theory, 14 April 2020:

9‘“Wildly unfair”: UN says 130 countries have not received a single Covid vaccine dose’, The Guardian, 18 February 2021:

10Hannah Arendt, ‘Home to Roost’ in Responsibility and Judgement (New York: Shocken Books, 2003), 259.


Arendt, Hannah. 2003. Responsibility and Judgment. Shocken Books.

Associated Press. 2021. ”Wildly unfair’: UN says 130 nations haven’t acquired a single Covid vaccine dose.’ The Guardian. 18 February.

Ginn, Rusty. 2020. ‘First the People’. Epsilon Theory. 14 April.

Quarantelli, Enrico Louis. 1985. ‘What Is Disaster? The Need for Clarification in Definition and Conceptualization in Research.’ University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.

Steinberg, Ted. 2000. Acts of god: the unnatural historical past of pure catastrophe in America. Oxford University Press.

Thucydides. 1881. History of the Peloponnesian War. Clarendon Press.

White, James Boyd. 2006. Living Speech: Resisting the Empire of Force. Princeton University Press.

Zack, Naomi. 2021. The American Tragedy of COVID-19. Rowman & Littlefield.

Zuboff, Shoshana. 2021. ‘The Coup We Are Not Talking About.’ New York Times. 29 January.

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