Pandemic Changes, from Routines to Values

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The sociologist David Freeman, professor at Colorado State University, described in his book Technology and Society (1976) the four stages in the introduction of new technologies in daily life, both in the production of goods and services and in the consumption thereof.  His description of these stages can also be used to explain what happens during a pandemic such as the one we are now going through, although the gravity of the danger in this particular situation accelerated a process that in normal circumstances takes longer.  Because of the fast pace of the emergency, the four stages have taken place almost simultaneously.

At the beginning of the pandemic we experienced sudden changes, so that we were forced to do some of the usual tasksin unusual ways, as a consequence of the quarantines, social distancing, and other measures put in place to diminish the risk of contagion.  Since important chores cannot be interrupted because our basic needs must be satisfied and most people need to work to survive, these changes in the routine were aimed at fulfilling such needs and making possible usual activities in a new environment. So, the first impact of the pandemic in our daily life was the modification of the everyday routine, a change often associated with uncertainty and fear.  Because of the scars left by emotions associated with danger and loss, the return to normalcy after the pandemic may be more difficult to negotiate than we imagine.

The initial change also forced us to the application of new capacities and abilities, by learning—for example—how to work with computer programs we were not familiar with. The case of teachers is well known.  Instead of working in a classroom face to face with students, teachers and professors now  find themselves in front of a screen where their students are reduced to tiny faces, and sometimes not even that. Owners and employees of all kinds of businesses had to learn how to help customers by phone or online.  Restaurants and shops ready to deliver orders to customers in their homes had a better chance of survival in the new conditions; many of those not able to cope perished.  The use of smart phones for bank transactions, as well as for payments and money exchanges between individuals, increased many times over in a very short period in many countries during the pandemic; this means that many people had to learn how to download and use apps if they wanted to get paid or transfer money to other accounts. This is the second stage of the impact of the pandemic, the development of skills that workers must master in their jobs, and that people need to apply in their daily activities.

Also, in a very short time the newly required abilities became institutionalized, in the sense that hirings and job openings were often available only to those in possession of these new skills.  Similar processes took place in the past every time a new major technology has been introduced: steam engines, electricity, cars, and computers.

Then came the third stage, related to the allocation of authority and prestige.  Scientists, health specialists, medical-equipment engineers and other professionals somehow connected to the effort to stop the spread of the virus—no matter how remotely—now find themselves in high demand and held in appreciation by other people. At the same time, other professions may see their prestige diminished because of their distance to the battleground or the lack of success in the fight.   During the Black Death in the XIVth century neither physicians with their potions nor priests with their prayers were able to stop the spread of the disease; both professions suffered a loss of prestige and authority  amid the population in spite of the fact that many of their practitioners became victims of the plague  while trying to console the afflicted.

Individuals do not act in a vacuum; their contributions need support from others. Changes in authority and prestige following success in solving problems are also dependent on the attitude of peers in groups and citizens in societies. In the cholera epidemic that spread around the world in the middle of the XIXth century, an English doctor, John Snow, was the first to apply statistical methods to find out how the contagion took place, and he was able to indicate what changes were to be made to avoid contagion. A similar application of scientific methods was implemented in Vienna by Ignaz Semmelweis around the same time, in an effort to control the death of women in labor as a consequence of puerperal fever.  But, whereas Snow´s recommendations were quickly adopted, Semmelweis´s were not.  Cholera was stopped in London; puerperal fever continued in Vienna.  In 1918 researchers in the United States found that the influenza epidemic that was killing thousands of people all over the world was caused by a virus.   It took four years to find the AIDS agent, yet only weeks in the case of Covid-19.  Prestige and authority follow success.

The last stage has also arrived soon during the pandemic crisis, and is characterized by problems, conflicts and changes in values. Collective security and individual freedom have been on a collision course for more than a year now, and in some countries the politicization of the debate made the situation even more difficult. But another and more deadly conflict has strained the social fabric in many countries, the one between health concerns and food security. The conflict between those who emphasize the need for quarantines and those who point to the plight of the poor still resonates in the developing world. For millions of people without fixed income, dependent on the informal economy, restrictions to their mobility have meant lack of food on the table.

And here is where values in conflict and in the process of changing can be detected in the evolution of preferences.  In many countries the epidemic has strengthened authoritarian regimes; in most of them big government is back as the only way to manage huge vaccination programs.  But overall, we have seen that individuals and groups have acted in pursuit of their immediate gain in the face of this new threat.  Some may argue that this is inevitable, but we want to point out that communities in different times and places behave in dissimilar ways in the face of grave danger, and that the outcomes can also be shown to be diverse. In general, there seems to be no substitute for solidarity and compassion.

It is easy to argue that the Black Death in the XIVth century brought about the end of feudalism; it is still too soon to see if the 2020-2021 pandemic has brought changes in capitalism.  What can be seen clearly in today´s circumstances is the failure of society as a whole to organize itself for the protection of the poor and vulnerable.  In addition to the gap between developed and developing nations, the gap between rich and poor within the less developed nations has not been reduced.  As a society we failed to rise to the occasion of making the destitute less vulnerable. It is a collective failure, which will live with us for a long time.  Although the danger we faced was real and grave, this was not our finest hour.

Costa Rica, June 2021

Luis Camacho, Ph.D.
President, Costa Rica Philosophy Association
Member of the Board, Center for Values in International Development 

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