While the negative impact on the economy of the coronavirus pandemic is obvious to all, there may be a positive impact on society which may linger after the virus has been suppressed. Major world upheavals in the past such as the Second World War have brought societies together to combat a shared enemy.
This particular enemy is a shared adversary to all humans, unlike past upheavals that had humans on both sides of the conflict. During the coronavirus lockdown, there are many stories of community spirit from Spanish police singing in the streets to people completing triathlons to raise money for charity. Neighbours who previously did not know each other are exercising together in the street or collectively watching films projected on to a wall. Suddenly people have time for people.
One of the accepted measurements of shared values and how connected people are within communities is called social capital and in a recent OECD report called How’s Life in 2020, which states: ‘There are clear warning signs with respect to both economic and natural capital, and there has been virtually no progress with respect to Social Capital since 2010.’
This lack of social capital in the past 10 years is despite the improvements in many economic indicators. Unemployment rates have dropped and general economic well- being has improved as the world recovered from the financial crash of 2009.
Sociologist Robert Putnam in his seminal book Bowling Alone traces the social capital of the US since the 1930s and his research showed that ‘each generation that reached adulthood since the 1950s had been less engaged in community affairs’ than people born in the 1920s. There was a peak of community engagement in the 60s and early 70s but as people born after the Second World War reached adulthood community engagement and hence social capital has declined and continued to the present day.
Historian Richard Polenberg adds: ‘To a large extend, participation in a common cause tended to enhance feelings of comradeship and well-being.’ So, it seems the generation that lived and grew in the decade immediately before during and after the second world in the US had a greater sense of community but as that generation has died off community spirit has declined.
There is little doubt the present pandemic is a war and we are all united in a common cause, and as in all wars we are seeing the strength and sometimes the weakness in our communities and leaders.
The Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo recently stated that people he expected so much of let him down and other people which he expected very little of stood up. It is notable that during the second world war Alan Turing who is considered the father of modern computing and who played a major role in cracking the enigma code in the fight to defeat Germany said: ‘Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine’.
There seems to be a strong case that in times of crises people behaviour changes from one of individualism to one of collectivism as a result community spirit increases, leaders with empathy emerge who identify with this sense of community and solidarity. As past crises have shown us this community spirit can linger long after the crisis has passed.
If that is so, then society, governments and institutions can harness this spirit of solidarity, then we may be in a good position to tackle the major issues of the day such as poverty and climate change. Maybe history will show that in the end, this pandemic had benefits to society after all.
Image credit: Freepik
Michael O Sullivan is an author based in the West Coast of Ireland.