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Professor of social work expects perpetual shifts about social status during pandemic to be temporary

Health spelled out in blocks

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in transformative changes throughout society, including how people view social status, which professions are considered crucial and how wealth is valued. Auburn Assistant Professor of Social Work Anthony Campbell says he expects some social and perceptual shifts to be temporary, while permanent changes could include how we involve the use of technology for communication, education and health care. Campbell, who earned his doctorate from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discusses the pandemic’s effects on the nation from a variety of perspectives.

How has this pandemic affected and shifted how we as a society think about social status? It seems it reminded us about the importance of “essential” workers like health care professionals, truck drivers, grocery store workers, etc., more so than celebrities or sports stars.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted social status differences in the U.S. Social status, a multifaceted concept that encompasses a variety of characteristics such as age, gender, race and socioeconomic status (income, education, occupation, wealth), is used to determine the relative importance or standing of an individual or group in society. For example, older age, as a social status, became front and center early in the pandemic when it was thought that older adults were most susceptible to the virus. This influenced the general public’s perception that younger people should not be overly concerned with contracting the virus. However, this perception belied the fact that younger people could become carriers of the virus and pass it on to more vulnerable older adults.

In addition, racial and ethnic group status became a factor as Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. have been disproportionately impacted by the virus in terms of hospitalization and mortality rates. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report outlined a number of factors that contribute to higher risk related to COVID-19 for racial and ethnic groups, including having higher rates of underlying medical conditions, experiencing stigma and systematic inequalities, having inadequate health care access and greater likelihood of being an “essential” worker, among many other factors. Hence, pre-existing health disparities that have been affecting those with minority statuses have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

During the pandemic, an “essential” workforce was designated to continue provision of basic and critical products and services. This long list of essential workers includes health care professionals, food service workers, grocery store employees, law enforcement, first responders, social workers, janitorial service workers, truck drivers, agricultural workers and many others. In the course of doing their jobs, all essential workers were placed at greater risk of viral exposure, and indeed essential workers represent a considerable proportion of those who contracted and died from the virus. During the massive national effort to minimize community spread of the virus, there was an outpouring of community support and appreciation for essential workers, especially for health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the pandemic. The lowest paid essential workers, such as food service workers and agricultural workers, were not quite as celebrated, despite their significant contributions. Support for essential workers was clearly expressed in a gradated fashion according to occupational status. We live in a status-driven society in which we grant various occupations different levels of prestige along a continuum. If our society places value on essential workers, then that value should be compensated accordingly for the essential work they perform. Barring major systematic change, it appears that any significant shift in how occupational status is viewed in our society, including that of low-paid essential workers, is temporary. As a society, we likely will continue to highly value and overcompensate celebrities and sports stars.

As viewpoints and priorities have shifted, it appears that standard status symbols of wealth might not carry as much weight as they once did. Have you perceived significant changes in how people view those symbols because of COVID-19?

The collective experience of this pandemic has transformative potential. There is some conjecture that younger generations living through this time of history may reflexively change the way they view status attainment. The standard status symbols of wealth (home ownership, higher education, vehicle ownership and accumulation of other material belongings) may not be as appealing to younger generations, but for now, this is just speculation.

Relatedly, in terms of income inequality, I do not perceive any significant long-term changes in how wealth is viewed as a specific result of COVID-19. Instead, I would imagine a further entrenchment of existing socioeconomic inequalities due to the prolonged economic impact of the pandemic. We live in a capitalistic society where the divide between the wealthy and the poor has been exponentially widening, and I do not expect a reversal of that trend soon. The economic system is organized so that those with wealth will have the ability to use their resources to their advantage to compensate for any financial losses and those without wealth will continue to experience events that further limit their status (e.g., loss of income, unemployment). I would argue further that, based on income and wealth as social determinants of health, people with fewer financial resources and access to health care services will be more likely to experience detrimental health consequences, either directly or indirectly related to the pandemic.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the way we value the truly important aspects of life, like family and friends? Has society’s dialogue about social consciousness morphed because of all this?

The pandemic has refocused many of our priorities and allowed many of us to consider what is most important in our lives. It has certainly highlighted the strong influence of the social domain of life and the importance of human relationships, the latter being one of the core values of the social work profession. Social connections are vital to our overall health and well-being.

The implementation of physical distancing and safer-at-home measures has produced some beneficial social outcomes for many people due to increased quality time spent with their immediate families and identifying creative strategies of maintaining social contact with friends and other family members. Unfortunately, adverse consequences have been experienced by vulnerable groups within our society. For example, some older adults may have become even more isolated than before as many of the services that they receive support from are no longer available. In addition, caregivers and family members are also following physical distancing restrictions and are unavailable for hands-on support. Families may also experience struggles due to unemployment, financial hardships and disruptions of routines that may make it more difficult for them to focus on socialization and family growth. Disruptive situations such as family violence, abuse and neglect are expected to increase during the pandemic.

What lasting changes do you see going forward for society as a whole, at least about how we regard others, as a result of the shutdown and pandemic?

While it is unclear what permanent societal changes may occur as a result of the pandemic, it is evident that the experience of COVID-19 directly impacts the lives of everyone, regardless of social status. Human beings are resilient and are adaptive to changes in their environments. A major change that I think will be permanent is the increased use of technology for communication, education, health care and other sectors. In terms of personal communications, people have had to be creative in how they connect with their friends and families during quarantine and physical-distancing measures. Another change that I hope is permanent is a greater proportion of the population that understands how health is intergenerationally linked so that the health of youthful populations directly affects the health of older populations. Understanding how everyone is socially connected will benefit all people, including the most vulnerable among us. Finally, a renewed interest in social connections and social isolation should bring about new research on the topic to assess the impacts of these social factors at the individual, family, community and societal levels. Findings could illuminate challenges in maintaining social connections in times of duress, identify innovative solutions for responding to those challenges and provide lessons for how we as individuals and our larger society can respond differently in future pandemics.

Tags: Faculty Research Sociology Anthropology and Social Work Social Work

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