“How Are You?”: Well-being, the Pandemic and the Crises

20/05/2020 | Corona

Professor Johan Höglund, Director of the Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, on Covid-19 and its relation to other critical areas of societal life.

These days, the phrase “how are you” is no longer an empty greeting, but an invitation for people to let us know how they are actually doing. The answer will typically first outline a person’s physical health status and the possibility that she or he may be infected by the virus. However, the answer will most likely also outline the individual’s relation to effects not caused by the virus as such, but by the various crises that the pandemic has brought in its wake: the experience of being in isolation, concerns of a future characterized by an economic downturn, or the fear of living in an increasingly xenophobic world. In other words, the pandemic is not simply a health emergency, it is also the accelerant of a series of related crises that are social, cultural and economic in nature. These crises are as big a challenge to global well-being as the virus itself, and they must be met by extensive and ambitious research. The pandemic energized these crises, but in most cases it did not spawn them. This becomes clear when they are categorized. During the past few weeks, intergovernmental organisations, international financial institutions, NGOs, journalists and researchers have identified a number of discrete yet related crises. This list includes, but is not limited to:

An inequality crisis:

There have been claims that the pandemic is “the great leveller” that affects rich and poor alike and thus reveals “how equal we are”. A stronger current in opinion and research problematizes this notion by pointing to the fact that the economic crisis is going to affect poor and rich communities very differently.

The economic crisis will certainly impact the so-called developed world, but it will strike the hardest against already poor nations. In early April, Oxfam warned that the economic crisis could send half a billion people into poverty and later the same month the “Global Report on Food Crises 2020”, published by the World Food Programme, warned that the number of people that risk starvation might double by the end of 2020.

Poverty is likely to increase also in affluent nations such as the US or Britain that suffer from great social inequality, often related to matters of race and ethnicity, and initial reports propose that strong public health care is a condition for effectively countering the pandemic.

A gender crisis:

Whereas more men die from the pandemic, women are more adversely affected by the economic crisis as their jobs and command of property are less secure. At the same time, during isolation and lockdown, women tend to have to take on a larger work load at home, and they are more frequently the victims of domestic violence than men. These issues extend to other matters of gender, as trans people are unable to continue therapy or are forced to self-isolate with people hostile to their sexuality.

An environmental crisis:

A side effect of the contraction of industry and travel in the wake of the pandemic has been a reduction of air pollution and thus a deacceleration of the climate emergency declared by the European Parliament in 2019. However, these positive effects are still only marginal and are also likely to be short-lived. There is a notable risk that the need to kickstart the global economy as the pandemic subsides will set back the effort to address the climate emergency, and as money earmarked for the development of sustainable technologies is used to alleviate the economic crisis. In this way, a long-term consequence of the Covid-19 virus might be an acceleration of the climate crisis.

A (des)information crisis:

Informal and often biased information hubs that use social media to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation predate the Covid-19 pandemic. These hubs now spread misinformation on the virus, creating what has been termed “pandemic populism”. Its effects on society comprise both the destruction of new technologies and resistance to coming medical solutions.

A political crisis:

Like U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, several studies have noted a rise in xenophobia and racism in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This constitutes an opportunity for far-right politicians that have long run on xenophobic platforms to strengthen their positions. Preliminary research and opinion have expressed a fear that the current pandemic and oncoming depression may create a political landscape similar to the one that emerged after the Spanish influenza and the Great Depression.

Any attempt to understand what is occurring around the planet at this moment must take these discrete yet related crises into consideration. Similarly, the effort to restore well-being in Europe and the rest of the world must recognize the wide range of economic, cultural and societal challenges that affected local and global society even before the pandemic began. For universities across the world, this means sponsoring research that explores both the virus and the crises that this virus has aggravated. So far, the focus for most institutions has been to address the immediate medical crisis and find a vaccine, but research on the accompanying crises is also underway at many EUniWell universities, as indicated in some of the references above. Creating a vaccine that protects people from the Covid-19 pandemic is an important step towards creating a stable society. But unless the crises that shake the global community are also addressed, Europe and the rest of the world will remain vulnerable both to the dark political forces that tend to rise to the surface at times of economic depression, and to future pandemics and emergencies.

By Professor Johan Höglund, Director of the Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies.