Watershed on Three Levels

Watershed on Three Levels


by Francesco Billari, Dean of the Faculty, Full Professor of Demography, Bocconi University

There are historical moments that have a strong influence on individuals, households, and societies. The Covid-19 pandemic, and its spread during the early months of 2020, starting from China and East Asia, moving to Southern Europe towards the rest of the world, will be one of these moments - a watershed. History will refer to the post-Covid-crisis era, and scholars, social scientists in particular, will try to seek the impact of what happened (as well as to reconstruct what happened), for decades. To use a well-entrenched idea in the social sciences, the Covid-19 pandemic is a discontinuity in our history. What can we say about the consequences of this crisis on societies, and in particular on social cohesion? While it is clearly too early to answer this question, we can try to characterize these consequences according to a ‘standard’ three-fold view that social scientists frequently adopt, distinguishing between macro-level, meso-level, and micro-level consequences.

On the macro-level, societies are likely to be shaped by the economic consequences and policy reactions to the crisis, in particular concerning their openness and interconnection. Covid-19 hit in a period of uneven economic development. The backlash against economic and political globalization and the rise of ‘sovereignism’ as a response to perceived uncertainty were there before the crisis. It is therefore easy to imagine that, without explicit changes and interventions, the Covid discontinuity is bound to accelerate the push against having more open and interconnected societies, with nationalist, if not localist, political reactions. Higher levels of sovereignism within societies could become a challenge, more likely a risk, for social cohesion in the whole world. This is even more important for Europe—where the EU is ideally bound to the idea of an ‘even closer union’. Not by chance have policymakers such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron jointly pushed for unprecedented moves that change the economic functioning of the EU in order to defend, at least within the union, societal openness and interconnection.

At the meso-level, social and family networks will also be shaped by the crisis, in particular given the fact that Covid-19 spreads through close contacts—many of which have happened within the family, household or other residential contexts, as well as at work. Physical distancing, with the reduction of the strength of network ties, has been widely used a policy response. The presence of strong family ties including co-residence and contacts across generations has been hypothesized as an important risk factor for the spread of Covid. Strong network ties have moved to the digital world, for those who could afford it, i.e. those not on the wrong side of the digital divide. As a consequence, the Covid-19 discontinuity is likely to become a crucial push towards the digitalization of social and family networks—digital ties will become social ties in an irreversible way.

At the micro-level of individuals, impacts are likely to be shaped by the Covid crisis in different ways according to their age and socio-economic status (as well as their place of residence). While older individuals have suffered the heavier health burden of the virus in the hardest-hit areas, children and youth have suffered high social (through the physical closure of schools and universities) and economic consequences even in areas that have been less hit by the health crisis. Every individual who passed away because of the pandemic left a number of family members bereaved. Moreover, the negative consequences of the crisis were less buffered by the disadvantaged at all ages. As a discontinuity, the pandemic will change the trajectories of individuals in ways that will need to be studied for years, and that are likely to change attitudes towards risk and other generations.

The potential social consequences of the Covid-19 crisis at the level of societies, networks and individual are likely to be negative, except perhaps for the boost to the digitalization of life. The negative impacts may be more important for frailer societies, households, and individuals. For these reasons, policymakers and key stakeholders, including business leaders, must intervene, using the best available evidence, in order to limit, or hopefully cancel, the threat to social cohesion that the pandemic constitutes.

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