Furr discusses effects of pandemic on society and social interaction

Dr. Allen Furr

Sociology is devoted to the study of the social context of human behavior and interaction, with a particular focus on groups, networks, social institutions, and social change. With most Americans experiencing weeks and weeks of lockdown and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, society may very well be changing right before our eyes. Auburn sociology professor Allen Furr examines the effects of the coronavirus on society and what it might all mean for the future.

Do you think society has fundamentally changed during this lockdown? If so, how? 

When we are under lockdown and social distancing orders, it is impossible to have relationships exactly as they were before. After all, we are trying to minimize risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease associated with the novel coronavirus. Family relationships and friendships and how we work and conduct business, engage in civic activities and entertain ourselves are all affected by the new rules. At the most basic level, the way we relate to other people outside our households is unlike anything we have ever experienced. When we do engage others, we touch them less (will we ever shake hands again?) and move more rapidly to avoid them. We speak to people at a distance or via an electronic device.   

The lockdown not only impacts everyday life, but it poses challenges to our existential existence; that is, how we understand what social life should be. For example, in American society, many of our social institutions are dedicated to preserving the rights of individuals, which are among the core values of our culture. When a severe public crisis emerges, however, the focus of our institutions changes from defending civil liberties to protecting and preserving national health and social order. Some people are having trouble reconciling this change in our collective social lives and have either denied the seriousness of the coronavirus or resisted temporary limitations on what they believe are their civil entitlements.

Is this situation training us, either consciously or subconsciously, to be more socially distant even after the lockdown is lifted?

Whether distancing enters our “collective mind” will largely depend on how the current pandemic plays out. If a reliable treatment or an effective vaccine is developed and the threat is removed, social distancing will be less urgent and may fade from public consciousness. On the other hand, if the threat persists, social distancing will remain in the forefront of our thinking, potentially becoming a source of social tension. Keep in mind that economic desperation will force many people to ignore distancing practices, and many people simply refuse to distance. It’s hard to predict the future, but we know from past epidemics that life returned to normal once the threat passed because the forces driving us to return to the “old normal” are strong. If social distancing remains necessary, it may become another expression of our current political divisions: those who distance and those who don’t.

One thing we do know is that, the longer social distancing continues, the more impact it will have. We learned from the SARS and MERS epidemics that quarantines affect the mental health of people in isolation and health care providers. Anxiety, substance abuse, depression and anger lasted months and even years after those crises ended. We need to be aware of emotional and behavioral changes in ourselves and loved ones and not be afraid to ask for help if troubles persist.

What are the major negative effects you might foresee this having on society as a whole? What about positive byproducts?

Much like the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our society will probably make adjustments following this global crisis. Hopefully all of them will be for the better, but if there is no vaccine or treatment, society could change in dramatically negative ways. For example, we could see medical issues becoming more politicized and people stigmatized for having COVID-19. Many people may blame those with the disease as being the cause of having to curtail their usual activities. We have already seen discriminatory behavior targeting people who have been falsely blamed for causing the pandemic. Another negative change could be in residential patterns. Viral diseases thrive on people living very close to one another. People with more money may abandon densely populated urban areas, leaving cities with greater concentrations of disadvantaged people, people who are showing to be highly vulnerable to COVID-19 because their jobs do not allow them to work at home or they have fewer social and medical protections, such as insurance or savings, to help them weather the storm.

Positive outcomes are possible, too. One is that the shutdown has caused a major improvement in air quality. People throughout the world are breathing cleaner air, and many are seeing the stars for the first time. If we treat the shutdown as an opportunity, perhaps we will understand the effects of human activity on the environment and take permanent measures to keep the planet healthy. Another positive outcome is that we are learning the importance of other people in our lives. Isolation is hard for most everyone, and being cut off from others has reminded us to stay close to the people we care about. On that note, I hope we are learning to appreciate those who work in jobs that are essential, but not necessarily high-paying. Grocery store employees, sanitation workers, nursing home staff and, of course, nurses and medical technicians, among many others, provide invaluable services to our collective well-being, and we should not take them for granted.

Since we’ve been forced to get creative with work and how we communicate, do you think this will make us better communicators in the long run?

The crisis has taught us the importance of reaching out to friends and loved ones, and perhaps we will stay close to them. The worry is that when the crisis ends, we will stop talking as often. But what I have seen is people being more expressive and clever in their communications. They are opening up and not just simply exchanging pleasantries; they are relying on tech-dependent communication to express their emotions and ideas. Hopefully, this will make us freer and more open once face-to-face communication returns. If nothing else, we have developed expertise in Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and other similar communication applications.

However, we have learned that a lot of our work can be done via distance. Should the crisis end and these practices become permanent, we may actually experience a net loss in social contacts. We could retreat to an even smaller social world than before the crisis. Virtual relationships are not a healthy substitute for real, genuine human contact.

Last Updated: May 05, 2020