Theodore C. Wagenaar, Miami University (OH), writing from Sarasota, FL
My volunteer activities as a retired sociologist address the inequalities that I see around me. And now I worry that my hospice patients will die alone. I worry about how my Meals on Wheels clients will get their meals now that elderly volunteers have been asked to stay home. I worry that my lower-income Tax-Aide clients will now have to pay to get their taxes done. Socioeconomic and racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths and access to health care remind me of the stress in the social structures and social situations around us, which inevitably highlights inequalities locally, nationally, and globally. There is not much I can do remotely other than send money to the local food bank.
Social distance pervades my personal life as well. One would think an introvert such as I would welcome this, and it was great for me for a while. But, over time I find it disorienting. I value my social interactions with family and friends and miss attending cultural events. I value third spaces and miss my book clubs and my Sunday morning breakfast meeting of local skeptics.
Cultures adapt to disruption. Thus, it has been interesting for me to observe responses to this crisis. Social norms have changed—it is now acceptable to wear a mask into a bank. Social structures have changed—unemployment offices cannot keep up. Institutions have changed — churches are now holding services at drive-in movie theaters. Social relations have faltered — domestic violence is on the rise.
Social isolation is a particularly salient outcome of the pandemic. I miss seeing family, acquaintances in third spaces, and those I serve as a volunteer. I fear there will be a dramatic increase in those with mental health issues. Certainly, individuals will adapt. For example, I use Zoom now to join happy hours, my skeptics group, and book clubs.
I expect that social life will be different after the pandemic passes. People will be reluctant to shake hands. The proportion of classes taught online will increase. Young people will be profoundly affected by the experience throughout their lives. People’s faith in social stability and social institutions may falter. Inequalities will worsen. My own volunteer activities will be constrained.
Sociologists are uniquely capable of addressing social dislocation and isolation at multiple levels. I hope many rise to the occasion and help inform the necessary ameliorative social policies.