Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

The Social Costs of COVID-19 

Commuters at Whitehall Terminal wear protective face masks during the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, March 26, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
They’re apt to be long-lasting, hard to measure, and heavy

‘Epidemics are not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but instead are a major part of the ‘big picture’ of historical change and development,” writes historian Frank M. Snowden, of Yale, in Epidemics and Society. “Infectious diseases, in other words, are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions, and demographic change.” So it is reasonable to assume that the coronavirus pandemic will exact a toll not only on our physical health and economic vitality. It will also change our society. And, if history is a guide, not for the better.

Already, populations around the world face varying levels of quarantine, self-isolation, lockdown, social distancing, and other techniques intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. This unprecedented stoppage of social interaction has led to a variety of odd and discordant images. In a scene of eerie beauty, Pope Francis delivers a blessing to a deserted and rainy St. Peter’s Square. No pedestrians or automobiles clog New York’s Fifth Avenue. Cars line up for drive-through medical testing in shopping-center parking lots. European apartment dwellers sing choruses from their balconies.

This disruption of established behaviors and routines is a reminder that human beings are social creatures. “Just as a strong economy bolsters all of us against losses, social connection is a renewable resource that helps address the challenges we face as individuals and as a society,” write former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy and his wife, physician Alice Chen, in a recent article for The Atlantic. Unable or unwilling to commute to the workplace, attend school, travel to conferences or vacations, patronize restaurants and bars, convene meetings and playdates, participate in religious services, visit the elderly, or get within six feet of their neighbors, Americans may discover a newfound appreciation of community. “We had to be set apart in order to feel together,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times.

That is the optimistic view. And plenty of anecdotal evidence supports it. The press is filled with heartwarming stories of people looking out for one another, formulating innovative ways to communicate and connect, sharing the surreal experiences of plague life. Social distance doesn’t make you a hermit. “With schools and restaurants closed, and a huge swath of the workforce stuck at home either working remotely or not working at all, usually quiet and empty neighborhoods are suddenly bustling,” writes John Daniel Davidson of The Federalist.

My own neighborhood in northern Virginia is an example. Before the lockdowns, you rarely saw anyone on the street other than dog-walkers. Now there are singles and couples and families walking and scooting and cycling from dawn to dusk. “No one would wish for neighborhood revival at the cost of a deadly plague and a ruined economy,” Davidson goes on. “Yet the resurgence of neighborhood life, especially neighborly solidarity and compassion, is proving to be an unforeseen silver lining to the coronavirus.”

The search for silver linings continues in a column in the Wall Street Journal raising the possibility that the coronavirus might inspire a return to faith. “Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?” asks Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project. Nicholson, it is safe to say, hopes that the answer is yes. He isn’t alone. But the barriers to a resurgent Church are high. And the limitations on worship imposed by governments as a result of the pandemic make them higher still.

The pessimistic view of the situation asserts that, at the time of writing, the United States has not experienced the full impact of the coronavirus. We are just beginning to recognize its severity. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released during the last week of March found that 70 percent said the outbreak was a source of stress and 36 percent said it was a source of “serious stress.” Ninety-three percent of respondents said they were “maintaining distance from other people.” Eighty-eight percent said they had stopped patronizing restaurants and bars.

Medical systems have not yet exceeded capacity. Record unemployment numbers have just started to accumulate. Social distancing is a fresh and unexpected break in procedure. How is it possible to spot the glimmers of silver lining? Because the virus hasn’t been here long.

As the shutdowns continue, the novelty will wear off. The absence of extended family, friends, colleagues, congregants, and associates will be harder felt. The stresses and pathologies associated with extended periods of separation will rise. Recently, after it surveyed the technical literature, the British medical journal The Lancet found that “the psychological impact of quarantine is wide-ranging, substantial, and can be long-lasting.” Zoom is an amazing and wonderful (if occasionally glitchy) technology. But it is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Past epidemics and natural disasters have carried a high price not just in lives and money. They have also weakened social institutions and eroded “social capital” — the web of networks that bring value to our lives and encourage social reciprocity and solidarity. Professors Arnstein Aassve, Guido Alfani, Francesco Gandolfi, and Marco Le Moglie studied the General Social Survey of the United States in the years before and after the Spanish-influenza pandemic of 1918–19. “Similar to the Black Death, the Spanish flu had long-lasting social consequences leading to a decline in social trust,” they write at the Center for Economic Policy Research. “We argue that this potentially resulted from the experience of social disruption and generalized mistrust which characterized the period.” More disturbingly, they write, in a recent paper for the Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research, at Bocconi University, “Our findings suggest that lower social trust was passed on to the descendants and survivors of the Spanish flu who migrated to the U.S.”

Like a hurricane or tornado, infectious disease uproots the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state. Families, churches, and communities sustain the worst damage. Nor is the pain equally distributed among the entire population. In a March 2014 paper, Francis O. Adeola, of the University of New Orleans, and J. Steven Picou, of the University of South Alabama, found that Gulf Coast populations with lower levels of social capital experienced disproportionate adverse mental-health consequences from Hurricane Katrina.

What will make the social effects of the pandemic worse is the global recession that is sure to follow. Alcohol and drug abuse as well as suicide are correlated with unemployment. But those who suffer from addiction or despair in this instance will find themselves unable physically to attend meetings of support groups.

Churches are more than places of worship. They are sites of communal activity that provide shelter for voluntary associations that address chemical dependency, obesity, and loneliness. Furthermore, rapid declines in the stock market and in the economic-growth rate all but guarantee that nonprofits will see some lean years. It will be difficult to cover deficits when social distancing proscribes the conferences, banquets, galas, events, walks, marches, and runs from which charities derive revenue.

Eventually, scientists will discover therapies for the coronavirus. One day, there will be a vaccine. Over time, economies recover. But social structures are not as easily reparable. The family and the Church have gone through decades of decline. Now they must endure this pandemic.

America can survive an economic depression. We’ve done it before. How we overcome a social-capital depression remains to be seen.

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In This Issue

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The Week

The Week

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