BY FREEK COLOMBIJN
Rumours, new societal practices, new state policies and self-imposed restrictions by organizations spread as fast as the Corona virus itself. It is almost certain that by the time this blog is published, or even by the time I stop writing, the situation has changed.
What is clear: it is the rapid pace of the infection that is the biggest challenge for society, more than the lethality of the virus itself. Health systems run the risk of not being able to give large numbers of patients the necessary intensive care, hospitals are short of respirators, and health care can break down if large numbers of medical staff get infected. The government, societal organizations and citizens take drastic measures to slow down the spread of the disease. The virus forces many people to make behavioural choices between allowing the Corona virus to spread or to accept other societal (financial, psychological) harm.
Doctors in some hospitals in Northern Italy (and China, Iran and other countries, who knows) are very close to facing the most dreadful dilemma when IC facilities are insufficiently available: which patients to give care and which patients to give up? It is the choice whom they send into death, a choice very much like the choices army doctors make for the wounded on a battlefield.
Indirectly, however, European governments make decisions with similar consequences. Bars, restaurants, air companies, professional sports clubs and theatres all face economic hard times and some will inevitably be ruined, as are factories that can no longer import the raw materials they need or cannot export the goods they produce. And how much stress will the risk of bankruptcy cause among owners or employees? Stress is, as we know, a major health risk taking away many lives.
Ironically, the measures can also improve the general health condition; air pollution over Wuhan and Northern Italy has spectacularly dropped and this must significantly decrease the incidence of death because of respiratory causes. But the other end of the scales, the discontinuation of team sports (and perhaps soon of fitness centres) will cause people to have less physical exercise, and lack of daily exercise is another major cause of death.
As a footnote: students of mine know that I sometimes call tongue-in-cheek that football is the most important of unimportant things (the quote comes from a former Pope?). When football organizations began to cancel matches and stop national leagues for weeks on end it became clear to me how big Corona would be; such a decision on football seems more telling of the seriousness of the societal impact than the financial losses on international stock exchanges.
As I write, the Dutch government is considering closing down all primary and secondary schools. A prolonged rupture of school education could have long-lasting economic effects for the children and society at large. For this effect to become visible, fortunately, schools would have to be closed for a much longer period than is currently envisaged. At a small scale, however, even a short disruption in education might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of school children that are dangerously close of dropping out of school.
Also individual citizens make choices. One common response has been to stock up groceries. It is a classic case of a prisoner’s dilemma; there is no need for it if nobody does it, but when you do not trust others not to do it, you can feel you have to do it yourself. Yet, most people feel that it is morally wrong. I heard about (but did not see) a news item on TV about a man leaving a supermarket with his trolley bulging out with toilet paper. When asked by the interviewer why he was stocking up on toilet paper, he flatly stated he always buys such quantities. Others decide to go out to bars and discos, despite the call not to do it.
People also show new social behaviour. Neighbours find innovative ways of helping each other when somebody is placed in quarantine. Children make fun from both sides of a window. One woman left notes from door to door in her neighbourhood that she could buy groceries for anyone that could not leave the house. People who used to spend the weekend watching football on television will have to invent or rediscover new pastimes. Perhaps we will have a baby boom in nine months from now?
The new patterns of behaviour are of course extremely interesting material for anthropologists. One of the Corona choices we can make is to drop all our current research projects and to fully go for what is happening around us now. It is a choice I am not willing to make, but I hope that many other anthropologists do.
Freek Colombijn is senior lecturer at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University, where he is also head of department.
Image: Empty toilet paper shelves at a supermarket in Halifax, Canada. © Indrid_Cold (www.flickr.com/people/fredisonfire), via creative commons.