'Seven changes to brace for after the Corona virus crisis'

As the Covid-19 health crisis is turning our lives upside down, we find ourselves at the brink of social change. Isolation replaces mobility, re-arranging social norms and values. While many of the worldwide measures to contain the spread of the virus are temporary, they will have a long-lasting impact on social life.

Is it possible to peer into the looking glass at a time like this? Informed by personal and professional experiences, seven media and communication scholars based at Erasmus University Rotterdam offer their predictions on the social transformations to come.

The predictions cover social inequalities (Mélodine Sommier), health surveillance (Aleid Fokkema)sustainability narratives (Radhika Mittal), transnational families (Amanda Paz Alencar) online education (Teresa de la Hera and Anne-Mette Hermans), and faith in technology (Delia Dumitrica).

Breaking free or locking the system down: Polarized times ahead

Everyone is quarantined, no one is immune. And yet, with drastic measures taken by governments around the planet, dire injustices appear. Covid-19 is making the system crumble, its usually covert flaws suddenly gaping. Worldwide the same rallying cry: our main weapon is to stay home. But not all soldiers can afford to do so.

Catching glimpses of what a slower and less consumption-driven world could look like will make some hungry for more change. Others will fight hard to bring the old ways back. Both positions are set to become stronger as the crisis continues to unfold. The aftermath, I fear, will only become more polarized.

Privacy or health: the new acceptability of health surveillance

With the sudden, steep rise in Covid-19 cases, moral questions of healthcare quickly gave way to the almost practical matter of containment. The bellicose language of the ‘battle’ against corona with its ‘frontline’ of health workers is paired with the business-like approach of ‘managing’ the health care system and ramping up the ‘manufacture’ of ventilating machines or procuring sufficient ‘supplies’ of protective gear. In a post-Covid-19 society the logic of management will continue to obscure moral issues. Invasive health surveillance will be one of its pillars: health and location tracking will become the accepted norm to safeguard free movement and economic prosperity.

When nature unleashes: will we learn to strike a balance?

As a common global experience, Covid-19 is likely to stay with us as a reminder that the tables can be turned at any time. It could instigate some regard, even distance, where the natural environment is concerned. Here and there, minor personal shifts favoring sustainability will turn into habits for some. But the real question remains: will the aftermath of the crisis create the opportunity for a real and systemic change in our relation to nature?

Transnational families: the strain of growing further apart

Whenever there is a crisis, connecting with our family and friends is important. We need to reach out, to interact, to touch and express our feelings, especially when confronted with distress and fear. Although the WHO advice to maintain social distancing is the norm these days, the desire to remain connected with our loved ones does not fade away.

Technologies are by no means a panacea for managing transnational family relations during crises like Coronavirus. In fact, they can just as well become a catalyst to family separation. While social distancing might last for a while, the many forms of inequality among transnational families worldwide will remain. The result, I fear, may be even more physical and virtual distancing.

More demand for online education: at what cost for faculty workload?

Closing down schools and universities has been among the first measures that many countries have taken to tackle Covid-19. As a result, many of these institutions turned towards offering their education programs online. In a clear demonstration of resilience, instructors and other staff involved in this challenge, have been translating their classes to an online environment. After what is undoubtedly the biggest online teaching experiment in history, we can expect an increasing offer and demand for online education. This will be motivated by two main reasons: first, institutions will want to capitalize on the investment made during the crisis; second, students will request what they now know we can provide.

Short-lived recognition for public higher education

The idealist in me reassures me that this renewed interest in, and praise for, education will be maintained, and that people may realise the need for a sustained increase in funding for education. However, the realist in me knows that this will not happen because educators are generally not sufficiently ‘mercenary’. This moment may have been a perfect opportunity to strike; to call attention to our already high workloads and to say, ‘we cannot provide more’. However, we don’t do this because we care too much and do not want our students to suffer. Moreover, so many in the public sector are in the same boat — overworked and relatively underpaid. No, at the risk of sounding essentialist, I think it is more likely that, once the epidemic has abated, we will receive a big pat on the back, and we will go back to high workloads and insecure contracts — but we love what we do, and those in power know it.

Technological determinism strikes back

For those of us raising the alarm on the dangers of technological determinism, this is bad news. Our efforts to unveil the social norms and values within technologies will be more easily dismissed as academic jibber-jabber. On the other hand, we witness first-hand the mundane practices through which beliefs sediment into ‘common sense’. We have to challenge ourselves and those around us into paying attention to the social actors and practices accelerating this sedimentation. We may not be able to stop technological determinism. Yet, we can still ask: what or who steers us towards making digital technologies indispensable to the way we live our lives?