Why Coronavirus Threatens Social Recession

Can City Life Survive Coronavirus? – New York Times, March 17, 2020, Michael Kimmelman

Together Apart

”It’s becoming harder by the hour to find the new normal. We need each other in a crisis like this, but we rightly fear congestion. France and Spain have ordered all cafes and restaurants shut down. In New York, it’s the same, with museums and Broadway theaters on hiatus. Mosques have closed in several countries, churches have canceled masses, and the pope prohibited the public from Holy Week celebrations. Traditionally, we seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem. But the coronavirus undermines our most basic ideas about community and, in particular, urban life.”

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Through the WI Lens

This perspective on the coronavirus pandemic starts with cities, those places that human beings have constructed in which to live and work side-by-side. But what it really highlights is a paradox. In terms of the threat posed by the virus, social proximity is humanity’s Achilles heel; social distancing has become the new norm, with people advised not to congregate for public events, to avoid any meetings unless strictly necessary, and to maintain a cordon sanitaire of 2 metres around themselves wherever possible. The other side of the paradox is that it’s the values of community and social interaction that offer us some hope of salvation. We already knew that social interaction, being part of a community and particularly helping other people, gives us purpose and an enhanced sense of wellbeing.

One of the few positive dimensions of the pandemic has been the emergence around the world of community focused groups, set up to help vulnerable neighbours and provide the support that state and other institutions cannot. This New York Times piece raises the prospect – first coined in Vox– of a ‘social recession’, a collapse in social contact hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. Yet it also cites evidence from the Chicago heat wave of 1995, that those parts of the older population with access to a robust infrastructure suffered much lower mortality than those in segregated neighbourhoods. An article in The Guardian also highlights the implications for health and mental health of more or less social interaction. Today, the virus is trying to drive us apart, but in doing so, it is drawing us together. Covid-19 does raise questions about whether we will be able to live so closely together in future – especially if there are further similar viruses or mutations – without modifying our behaviour. The trick is going to be finding ways to harness our desire to be socially connected, while protecting ourselves against the vulnerability that that entails.

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