Financial crises tend to have a long-lasting effect on societies. COVID-19 will be no exception given that its economic and social impact is fueled by a public-health emergency that is difficult to curb and that is putting tremendous pressure on healthcare systems around the world. This was the main reason why my university’s dean sent me an email in early March asking if I could put together — in less than two weeks — an online class on “Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics,” to be offered to all undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) during the second half of the spring semester. At the time of writing, we are into the third week of a six-week class. About 2,100 students are taking it for credit, and 500 more are auditing it. Every week three professors present for one hour each and take questions from the audience. Nineteen teaching assistants, several of whom are PhD candidates in sociology, are grading the weekly assignments. Students have to write a team paper on a topic related to the crisis.
Pandemics are epochal events. As such, they reshape society. The Bubonic Plague of the 1300s created such a scarcity of labor in Europe that it led to momentous changes in agricultural technology, eventually paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. The entire global balance of power shifted as a result of Europe’s subsequent rise. Women’s status in society and the labor market improved to such an extent that growing numbers delayed marriage and childbearing, although many of their gains proved to be temporary rather than permanent. The most recent global pandemics — the Influenza of 1918 and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic beginning in the 1980s — also had immense repercussions worldwide.
In designing a class on the economic and social impact of pandemics, I thought carefully about how the various social sciences could contribute to a better understanding of their origins, dynamics, and consequences. I searched for expertise among the Penn faculty in the areas of epidemiology, economics, sociology, psychology, and political science. I was especially keen on conveying theoretically grounded ways of thinking about the problem and evaluating the policy alternatives to tackle its consequences. In my own lecture about the antecedents to this crisis, I drew from world-system theory, the world-society approach, Charles Perrow’s theory of normal accidents and catastrophes, the social construction of reality, and social network analysis. I also brought to the students’ attention that crises tend to increase economic and social inequality. I recruited faculty colleagues who are experts on epidemiology, demography, social psychology, work practices, human decision-making biases, economic recessions, and geopolitics to deliver the rest of the weekly lectures.
As I listen to my colleagues’ lectures and the students’ reactions in the online discussion groups organized to channel their comments, I have come to realize the different ways in which sociology can illuminate the study of pandemics. A global health crisis can only occur in the context of an integrated world system. The local spread of a global pandemic follows patterns of social interaction, many of them driven by social networks. The effects of the pandemic on the economy can be conceptualized in terms of the embedded nature of economic and social institutions, as they play out in the workplace, at home, and in terms of work-family balance.
While the virus knows no borders or social classes, the nefarious health effects are most intense for certain socioeconomic and age groups. Sheltering in place has led to a sudden reorganization of patterns of social interaction and to a higher incidence of domestic abuse. There is little doubt at this point that this pandemic will exacerbate existing trends in economic and social inequality as well as create others. Sociology can also contribute to ongoing debates as to the best way for the government and nonprofit organizations to help, especially when it comes to anticipating the long-run social effects of different policies and initiatives.
But perhaps the most long-lasting effect of this pandemic will be our relationship with technology. In the short run, it seems as if technology is helping us cope with some of the consequences by allowing education, work, and play to continue for many of us while we observe social distancing and sheltering in place. Over the long run, however, a more intense use of technology will continue to magnify social inequality. Perhaps only about one third of all workers can perform their duties remotely. Not everyone has access to a computer, a mobile phone, or a broadband connection, and not everyone has enough space at home so that children can both learn and play. This is why it is so important that we teach and do research on the sociological implications of this pandemic, especially while the crisis is still unfolding.