Thinking of the Sociology of Pandemics

There is perhaps a need to discuss what sociology in general and epidemics sociology in particular which interacts with the sociology of knowledge and social epistemology has to say about pandemics and emerging infectious diseases.

The available literature on the sociology of pandemics clearly reveals that a sociological lens is very important in understanding how society reacts to out wide the spread of pandemics.

It is a matter to think about how capitalism and globalization created the conditions for the Coronavirus pandemic.

In order to explain how Sociologists think of pandemics, the first task is to take up the study of epidemiology which simply means the study of patterns of health and illness among people. In the beginning how humans used to live much shorter life spans and we have seen an increase in those life spans but the big change for human life expectancy came between 1900–1930 during the epidemiological transition. Life expectancy for the whites in the US went from 47 to 60 at that time and for blacks, it went from 33–48. This became possible largely due to good sanitation and sewer systems. But the biggest factors in the epidemiological transition were better overall nutrition and living conditions. Better nutrient diets and clean environment improved people’s immune systems and reduced the spread of plague and influenza. The point here in saying this is that the way we organize our social lives has the biggest impact on our life expectancy as human beings. The epidemiological transition in the US and Europe was not brought about by modern sanitation or medicine or vaccines but by people’s access to food and shelter and clean air.

In contemporary times the biggest killers of people are heart disease, strokes, and cancers etc. And we think of these as lifestyle diseases but medical research says that is not completely true. At individual level, we can minimize the risk of these diseases in some ways but a lot of them are understood to be genetic or environmental or a complex combination of factors that we fail to understand.

Although many of us think that infectious disease was in the past, Epidemiologists have been telling us for years that we have not got rid of infectious diseases.

Epidemiologists say that since around 1980 we have been in a period called the “new rise in infectious disease.” we have heard about diseases like hantavirus, mad cow and Ebola. We may not realize how dangerous these diseases are because for most of us they are just on TV news and life is too busy to be worried about people we don’t know.

Majority of humans don’t have the basic health care system. We live in a world of great inequality where some of us suffer from obesity and some struggle to find adequate nutrition. Some of us get good health care while others go bankrupt or go without health care when they fall sick. But if we are poor, undernourished, homeless and do not have access to clean food, water and air, we will fall sick.

What Epidemiologists and Sociologists have in common is the empirical understanding that the way people live creates the patterns of health and illness. Biological organisms and physical world are interconnected around the globe. And how we move around the world influences when we meet other biological organisms that can do us harm, when we are vulnerable to infection and whether we spread those organisms to other people. Our living conditions dictate our patterns of health and illness as individuals, communities, species and ecosystems. The way we organize our social lives creates an impact on our surroundings. This is the central point of the Sociology of Health and Epidemiology. When we overuse and misuse antibiotics we make it harder to stop the infectious disease. When we cut down forests and build dams and displace large numbers of people and animals we create poverty and inequality and disrupt stable ecosystems.

When we put animals and humans in closer contact than they were before, we increase the likelihood of them sharing disease. When we crowd people together and stress their immune systems, we increase the likelihood of transmitting disease. When we fly around the world to make sure the factories keep running and products keep being made and sold, we carry diseases with us. And if we fly to countries with inadequate health care systems or stingy social policies, the poorest people in those countries will suffer the most because they will be the most vulnerable to disease and the least able to access treatment.

We do not have public health as a number one priority. This lack of organization makes it very difficult to have a singular, effective plan to deal with new, highly contagious diseases. We are most vulnerable to the devastation of a global pandemic.

This is an attempt to show what sociology in general and epidemics sociology in particular (which interacts with the sociology of knowledge and social epistemology) has to say about pandemics and emerging infectious diseases.

Societies worldwide are caught up for the time being in an extraordinary emotional maelstrom which seems, at least for a time, to be beyond anyone’s immediate control.

There are three types of psycho-social epidemics that help us to analyse the sociology of pandemic; the epidemic of fear, the epidemic of stigmatisation and moralisation and the epidemic of action and adaptive reaction.

These the three epidemics of fear, stigmatisation and moralisation patterns of action seem to be much more severe when the virus is new or strikes in a new way like the coronavirus that swiftly became a pandemic. From a sociological point of view what is interesting about these three psycho-social epidemics is that they have the potential capacity to infect almost everyone in society.

Just as almost everyone can potentially catch certain epidemic diseases, so almost everyone has the capacity to be frightened of such diseases — and, likewise, has the capacity to interpret, stigmatise or moralise and behaviourally adapt to the new situation or think that something must be done and done urgently.

All three aspects, therefore simultaneously possess profound psychological and collective characteristics.

There is a useful concept in Psychology called “the Behavioural Immune System”. It’s based on the idea that our biological immune system is not sufficient to help us avoid infections, because we can’t see things like bacteria or viruses. This behavioural immune system is like a psychological system that enables us to detect the viruses. We can see how this behavioural immune system, the fear of other people, races, migrants have cropped up. There is a clear linkage established between migrants and the spread of coronavirus.

Racial discrimination has also come to the fore. With this outbreak, which originated in Wuhan, there was an upsurge in stigmatisation, avoidance, fear and harassment towards people of Chinese origin and of Asian descents in general.

Some Chinese students in the USA were asked to go back to their infected country and many Asians have been reported to be targets of xenophobia and racism related to coronavirus.

A counter-movement also emerged against stigmatisation related to the virus. Activists started coming with slogans that we should fight the epidemic instead of fighting people. We must respect facts and science, not react to prejudices and biased actions.

Viruses do not discriminate and neither should we too. Also, stigmatising China politically by calling the pandemic as a Chinese virus has also even recently rejected by the WHO and other human rights organisations.

As for moralisation, we are noticing a growing tendency, especially in religious circles to give a divine and sacred meaning to the epidemic, like; Is the Coronavirus a Judgement From God? All natural disasters can ultimately be traced to sin. In the same realm, Shia Iraqi Islamic scholar said that the spread of coronavirus is undoubtedly an act of Allah that is divine punishment against the Chinese for their treatment, mockery and disrespect towards Muslims and Islam.

Let’s bring out the attention towards the third psycho-social epidemic that is related to the collective action and reaction to the pandemic. It is a sociological theory of community level response to health threats.

Across the world, a coronavirus culture has emerged spontaneously with creativity to deal with restrictions on daily life and self-quarantine at home. Various kinds of such practices are globally shared like Iranian health workers dancing and singing in an effort to keep morale up as the country faces the worst coronavirus outbreak outside China, TikTok dance about washing hands in Vietnam, Italians and French people opening their windows and singing to generate collective moral lift and support and India, too, rising up in solidarity by banging thalis, clapping and lightning candles. Sociologically speaking humans tend to be altruistic and co-operative when it comes to their survival.

Such adjustment in any given society is a permanent process.

Yet, in many countries mistrust between people and governments is playing a negative role in handling the outbreak of the virus. Long standing and deep-seated inequalities, lack of accountability and transparency and inadequate and inaccurate communication with people are the main ways to generate mistrust, fear and panic in a crisis situation.

The new rise in infectious disease is important not as an intellectual exercise but because it indicates that a rational society with economic resources must have a health system capable of keeping us safe from the rise of new infectious disease. Unfortunately, we do not have such a system.

Dr Syed Nadeem Fatmi is an Assistant Professor at Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University

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