Virginia A. Miralao
(Former Secretary-General, UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines)
Years and years from now when COVID-19 would be but a blip in the history of human experience, surviving accounts of the period may yet show that COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 stalled the trajectories of world developments and instilled the seeds of long-term social change and transformation.
Within a month after the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, border closures and lockdown measured unrolled country after country until the world came close to a standstill. The developing catastrophe caused the stoppage not only of travel and movement, but of almost all economic activity and forced the closure of schools, offices, churches and public places. Unprepared as the world was for the pandemic, COVID-19 overwhelmed even the most modern health care systems of the developed world, prompting governments to declare states-of-emergencies and mobilize all resources to battle the pandemic.
But just weeks following the lockdowns and amidst the fear and uncertainty wrought by COVID-19, there were some unexpected but heartening developments welcomed by citizens and communities. Among the immediate of these was the improvement of air quality worldwide. By spreading quickly, stopping air, sea and land travel, and curtailing manufacturing and industry, COVID-19 cleared the air and advanced an environmental goal that has eluded the global community. Also, the pandemic began to engender changes in lifestyles as the prolonged “stay safe - stay home” orders stalled people’s “busyness,” causing them to pause and rethink what to do with their time and how to rearrange their lives.
Uniting to Fight the Pandemic
Expectedly, governments took the lead in responding to COVID-19’s outbreak, quickly expanding health care facilities and providing direct financial aid to the populace. Governments also forged partnerships and cooperation with private sector and civic entities to produce and deliver necessary supplies and services, even as other groups and individuals independently embarked on their own assistance initiatives.
Uncharacteristically setting profits aside, big corporations and individual billionaires and celebrities donated huge sums of money to provide food and necessities to the public; build structures to expand hospital and treatment centre capacities; fund research and development projects to speed up the search for a cure and vaccine for COVID-19; and even went as far as repurposing their manufacturing plants to produce sorely needed supplies and equipment, i.e., face masks, protective shields and the like.
Similar assistance has come from local groups, churches and traditional charities, civic associations and non-profits that organized food aid and assistance programs. Unable to reach their usual markets, farmers offered their produce free or at token prices to the public. Thousands volunteered to prepare, pack and deliver food bags and essential supplies to households and street dwellers alike. Artists and those with talents and expertise created online programs to entertain people stuck at home, or provide online counselling to those increasingly disturbed and frustrated by the prolonged lockdowns. Churches likewise went online, live streaming services to their congregations.
Expressing heartfelt gratitude to those health, security and public order personnel for their services and dedication to care for those infected with COVID-19 risking their own lives, citizens the world over organized moving events on their streets and on social media to thank and honour these frontline workers of the pandemic. It was as if the pandemic touched people to the core and evoked in them feelings of compassion and belongingness to one and the same human race.
Damage Done by COVID-19
The foregoing demonstration of caring and cooperation among different actors notwithstanding, it must be told that COVID-19 hit society and economies very hard, causing incalculable suffering as the numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths continued to rise. The pandemic too, caused widespread joblessness: unemployment numbers rising in almost all economic sectors. Many of these sectors were growing robustly just before the pandemic, fuelled earlier by the globalization of the economy via bilateral and multilateral agreements that reduced barriers to free trade and other exchanges between and among countries. But crippling the economy, COVID-19 has left countries around the world in severe economic slumps or with barely growing economies.
One might say that the pandemic exposed the strengths and weaknesses of globalization as countries saw the vulnerabilities of their economies to international crises and calamities. Agricultural enterprises that were heavily dependent on migrant and foreign labour for example, could no longer easily and effectively harvest and process their produce. Manufacturing and industrial plants, many of which are located in the developing world ceased or reduced production as the demand and markets for their products dropped in the developed world. Several other businesses closed down in view of their dependence on component parts or operations produced or undertaken in other parts of the world.
Meanwhile, countries whose economies were buoyed up by migrant labour remittances (like the Philippines), suffered significant drops in income and bore the costs of repatriating their nationals rendered jobless in other lands. The massive loss of jobs and livelihoods from the pandemic have swelled the numbers of the poor, likely creating a new underclass even from among the mainstream and middle class who have lost their businesses and jobs.
In turn, the realization that national economies are heavily interlinked and that no one country is ever self-sufficient appears to have furthered nationalist and totalitarian tendencies, already evident in a number of governments before the pandemic. At national levels, ideas of rebuilding the economy have turned towards lessening the dependence on external labour, products and markets and increasing self-sufficiency, particularly in the area of food production and the provision of essential services. It may not be surprising then that governments could increasingly turn protectionist and pursue nationalist economic policies to shield their countries from global economic turmoil.
Additionally, one notes that the declaration of states of emergency to battle COVID-19 has justified the stronger powers and roles given to the police and the military to enforce mandated restrictions, curfews and lockdowns, maintain peace and order, and provide necessary logistics for the care and treatment of COVID-19 patients. Inadvertently, this has reinforced the resurgence of “strong leaders/strong states,” also evident in not a few countries before the pandemic. The revival of nationalist and authoritarian tendencies represents a push-back (or a stall) against earlier globalizing trends that promoted mobility and freedom of movement and cross-country and cultural exchanges.
Increasing Social Tensions, Conflicts
Although the pandemic brought governments and other social actors to partner with one another and cooperate to fight COVID-19, this has not sufficiently suppressed ongoing geopolitical tensions and social conflicts around the world. Historical border disputes between and among countries for instance, and issues of territoriality and sovereignty remain sensitive issues that threaten world peace.
Equally concerning are the ideological and economic tensions among the world’s superpowers as they compete for global technological, economic and political dominance. These tensions have not eased and may have been exacerbated by current trends towards nationalism and authoritarianism, and the politization of the origins and spread of COVID-19 and its handling by governments and international bodies.
Neither has COVID-19 diminished occasions for conflicts arising from longstanding class differences and the increased differentiation and diversity of societies that came with modernization and globalization. Some of these differences have evolved into today’s ideological and “culture wars,” and are evident in the debates over such issues as ethnic, racial, gender and religious diversities and rights.
The non-resolution of these conflicts have erupted into street rallies and protest actions around the world, despite the COVID-19 lockdowns and prohibitions against mass gatherings. These protest actions (organized in defence of freedoms, democracy, human and sovereign rights, and other related causes) have at times turned unruly and violent, surfacing deep-seated differences that fuel extremism, partisanship and the polarization of the body politic.
These also highlight the difficulties in arriving at a common understanding on global issues among people of varying cultural backgrounds and countries of widely differing viewpoints and perspectives. The continuation of these conflicts not only feeds geopolitical tensions but also distracts governments’ attention from the complex problems unleashed by the pandemic.
Challenges of Rebuilding, Recovery
Extensive as the damage of COVID-19 has been, it also had some beneficial consequences such as the improvement of the atmosphere and environment. The pandemic also brought into focus opposing social tendencies towards cooperation and unity on the one hand, and towards discord and division on the other.
The success of countries and the world community in ending the pandemic, reviving economies and restoring regularity to social life, depends in no small measure on their ability to manage tensions and conflicts and rally public support and unity to move their countries forward.
There is no telling how the recoveries of societies and economies will go, but it is generally accepted that there will be no return to “business as usual,” signifying the evolution of new norms and practices in a post-COVID-19 world. It is also acknowledged that the rebuilding of societies towards a “new normal” is fraught with huge challenges that can exhaust available resources and exacerbate existing fissures and divisions within and across countries.
The biggest challenge is on the economic front as governments deal with massive unemployment and worsening destitution, poverty and inequality.
On the health front, and despite expected scientific and medical breakthroughs in dealing with COVID-19, a huge challenge lies with the rise of pandemic-related hunger and diseases expected to increasingly follow in the disease’s aftermath. Health needs can easily outstrip public health provisions and strain the delivery of humanitarian aid to already poor, conflict-ridden and pandemic-stricken places and regions across the globe.
On the education front, educational institutions must find ways to minimize the disruption of schooling following the school closures during the lockdowns. Although much progress has been made possible by digital technologies in distance education and in the conduct of educational programs online, the education sector faces difficult challenges in adjusting school calendars and curricula to changed schooling systems and settings, while also taking into account the differential access of localities to the internet and online learning.
Finally, today’s highly differentiated and socially, linguistically and demographically diverse societies have left the world with fewer commonalities and guiding norms and values to govern individual behaviour and social life. Differences in viewpoints among groups of varying social classes, ages, genders, ethnicities, races and religions are fodder for conflicts and social unrest.
As politicians, activists and interest groups get naturally drawn into these conflicts, these soon become polarizing and politicized. COVID-19 may have exacerbated these disruptive and divisive processes within and across countries, leaving governments hard-pressed to maintain social order and unify the citizenry behind the pursuit of urgent socioeconomic measures and reforms.
But, on the positive side, COVID-19 brought people together to share and commiserate with one another at a time of common suffering - preventing societies from falling apart or into varying states of anomie and dysfunction.
Since conflict and contestation are in the nature of politics, governments are not well-positioned to unify and effectively govern in crisis situations. And here, the COVID-19 experience points to the role of other social institutions, family, education and religious institutions outside of politics and government, working to keep societies intact and assisting people through difficult and trying times. One notes that it is more in the nature of families, schools and faith congregations to build communities, prepare children for adulthood, and impart values of caring for and respecting “the other,” and living harmoniously together.
Schools for instance, play important roles in promoting civicmindedness and ideas of the common good. Drawing lessons from COVID-19, schools can enrich educational content to further awareness of today’s contending global issues. Lessons in civics, history, social studies and other subjects can delve into the historical and cultural contexts surrounding the emergence and development of these issues, and their interpretations by various publics. A more informed understanding of these can prevent knee-jerk reactions to conflicts and foster appreciation of difference and dialogue.
Families provided the first line of support - material, emotional and psychosocial - to household members during the lockdowns. It is within families that members are rooted (versus simply being networked) in primary ties and relationships that sustain individuals and communities at large.
Churches and faith-based organizations on the other hand, have long engaged in charities and the provision of a range of social services particularly to the needy and disadvantaged. During emergencies like the COVID-19 lockdowns, they are known to mobilize quickly and bring assistance to large numbers of the public. This is on top of their primary mission of growing the faith of their members and attending to their spiritual needs.
Like families, churches and faith groups provide comfort and psychosocial support to individuals and build a sense of community amidst turmoil and difficulties. But considered as constituting private and individual concerns, discussions on the value of families and religious faith in sustaining the social fabric have been pushed out of the public square. In the run-up to rebuilding a post COVID-19 world however, it may be time to revisit the contributions of families, schools and faith congregations to social stability, harmony and peace.
Dr. Virginia Miralao is a sociologist. While serving as Secretary-General of the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines, she was also a Governing Board member of three UNESCO centres, including APCEIU. Previously, she served as Executive Director of the Philippine Social Science Council, among other positions.