At the beginning of the pandemic, it did not seem like we were facing a change in cycle; however, now, given the urgent crisis, a change in cycle seems insufficient. Instead, the situation requires an economic, political, and social paradigm shift.
Our society already suffered from unsolved problems: social and technological inequality, gender violence, exclusion of minorities, etc. However, we did not feel like we were part of the problem. Any difficulty seemed insignificant if we could participate in a market that determined what we should consume at all times to differentiate ourselves from our peer group (Lipovetsky, 2016). We felt a level of superiority compared to others.
Everything could be a trend, and being able to follow them was a success. Sharing it on social media empowered us. Our public selves overcame our self that was in a tight spot, which had to survive society’s problems.
The fact that individuals constructed themselves with market values distanced them from social awareness (Lipovetsky, 2016). For the most part, the goal of participating in collective actions before and during the pandemic was not to seek collective wellbeing, but rather to achieve some goal arising from grouped individual needs.
Moreover, the life structures seen to be validated broke down before our eyes because they were the result of need and not of reflection. Society’s economic model turned us into consuming agents, diminishing the value of our productive side (Bauman, 2007), requiring all types of institutions to respond to this reproductive model. Supposed balance between personal life and work most closely resembled an obstacle course, which, by night, left us feeling bittersweet. Being within the system absolved us of guilt. Because if there is something individuals run from – and rightly so – it is ending up on the side of social exclusion. And while that struggle among titans went on, we did not know, or did not want to know, what was going on in those organizations in which we had placed our trust. Let us use the model of institutionalized elder care as an example.
The arrival of COVID-19 has added yet another epidemic on top of the already-existing unresolved ones, which were mentioned at the beginning of the article. The peculiar thing is that we were not so aware of their persistence, but they were there, and they started to become more evident because the virus has changed our public space, returning us to the private, a place where our miseries flourish.
This syndemic (Siger, 2009) we are experiencing requires changes on a small and large scale, which should not surprise us. Far from it. The fact that man is more exposed to animal diseases is the result of the overexploitation of natural resources. Extreme climate conditions have the same origin. Therefore, respect for and taking care of the environment must be a real priority, regardless of ideological alignment.
Speaking about ideology in times of polarization is a chimera; everything is subject to questioning without reflection, passionate discourse prevails over rational, and the masses are warned of the dangerousness of the other side. It is assumed that, if anything, they are our enemy (Bauman, 2017). The presumption of innocence only exists in the legal arena, while in politics it seems that anyone who makes a decision does so knowing that he or she is going to hurt the people involved. The danger of the polarized message in times of syndemic is that the social masses want to find an enemy to blame for the hurt they are experiencing, and you cannot see a virus. And we cannot even find within ourselves a shred of blame for our behavior – from which blame has been displaced – which caused, even microscopically, the situation we are now facing.
We are up in arms because the United States Capitol was stormed, when President Trump’s speeches were the perfect breeding ground. While Trump made a spectacle, his followers were organizing. To do so, they used different social networks that accepted hate speech, reductionist proclamations, and a good dose of fake news as natural. All the while, these networks – products of the system – did nothing.
And thus, without realizing it, while reason lives alongside unreason, the institutions we thought to be solid are deteriorating, even buckling under the pressure. We must make a change in the way we do politics which includes finding a balance between the market and citizen wellbeing. No one should have to suffer and be discriminated against simply because they exist.
It is not that poverty has suddenly appeared now; it already existed, but aporophobia concealed its presence. And it is not that gender inequality has returned, as we are seeing that women are more adversely affected by COVID-19. They have had to put their role as caretaker, teacher, and cleaner before that of professional in times of lockdown, with their children at home and schools closed. Women’s inequality never went away.
And as we have adapted our lives to the reality of the syndemic, we have realized that our homes were thoroughfares that did not meet our needs; we have seen that unemployment is possible at any time. We could all be affected by a Temporary Workforce Reduction Plan or a Workforce Adjustment Plan, which makes us fragile, vulnerable beings. These plans are implemented by companies which, although still profitable, want to continue to make money without concerning themselves with the instability to which they will subject their workers, who earned them all that money. There is no doubt that we must limit profits and implement models for a sustainable economy.
A sustainable economy means a pattern of growth that balances economic, social, and environmental development in a productive, competitive economy. Such a model favors quality employment, equal opportunities, and social cohesion; it also guarantees respect for the environment and the rational use of natural resources, thereby satisfying the needs of today’s generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Article 2 of the Sustainable Economy Law (SEL). Official State Gazette of March 5, 2011).
Technologization, remote work, and virtual schooling are at odds with the digital divide. And if we do not remedy this, social inequality will grow even more, because it will become increasingly difficult for people with little resources to enter the system. We must strive towards universal access to digital technologies so that there is not two-speed citizenship.
With regard to the most vulnerable – children, people with disabilities, minorities, and the elderly – society should offer them alternatives to institutionalization or ghettoization.
And as for us, we should all recognize, even if only to ourselves, that we were able to endure, to move forward, to cry for those we lost, to manage life, work, and home, and to not get left behind. The road traveled was undoubtedly difficult, and we should work to ensure that we or future generations do not have to go through it. Thus it is essential to work to recover values like solidarity, to focus on the collective, to put reflection before passion, and question everything so as to correct mistakes. We still have time. It is up to all of us.
Rebeca Cordero is professor of Applied Sociology in the Doble Grado en Criminología y Psicología
Bauman, Z. (2007). La vida consumo. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Bauman, Z. (2017). Retrotopía. Barcelona: Paidós.
Consejo de Ministros. (2011). Ley de Economía Sostenible (LES). Art. 2. 5 de marzo de 2011. Extraído el 13 de enero de: https://www.boe.es/eli/es/l/2011/03/04/2/con
Lipovetsky, G. (2016). De la ligereza. Barcelona: Anagrama.
Singer, M. (2009). Introduction to syndemics: a critical systems approach to public and community health. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.