Home is not what you think

by Eva Illouz, Sociology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

The Corona pandemics is more easily classified as a natural disaster than a man-made evil (although this is easily questionable given that it is the result of man-made zoonotic spillovers and given that China’s totalitarian regime postponed by many precious weeks the divulgation of the virus). Yet, everything in its management was so spectacularly interwoven with politics and the media, that it became impossible to view it simply as an inevitable natural scourge. It exposed and undid the stitches with which most spheres of society were sewn: those seamless stitches have come undone. The Corona crisis was properly stunning and it is the state of stupor I want to reflect on. Stupor is, on the whole, a very rare state. It is a state that overwhelms us but for which we have no prior routine or category to cope with.

Let me thus start with a book that dealt with man-made evil, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem because Arendt also tried to make sense of an event which produced a sense of stupor, the pan-European massacre of the Jews. To account for that sense of stupor she used a method of analysis which can be characterized as anti-historical in that she refused analogies from the past. The past cannot shed light on the present or the future because as Tocqueville put it, in times of crisis the “mind errs in obscurity.” Epidemics and even pandemics have always accompanied humankind. Yet, the Corona pandemic will be a milestone, not for the scale of the deaths it caused (it is, at the time of this writing, much smaller than many other plagues and diseases), but because of the ways in which we organized it socially, economically, politically and symbolically.

More than four billion people throughout the world have stopped their mobility, work, and ordinary socializing, willingly, without much protest. People were confined to their homes, assuming they had one, without the possibility of using streets, shops, or public transportations. That people would renounce their freedom willingly to defend their health is not, in itself, terribly surprising. After all, as Thomas Hobbes (and others) put it, we will always be willing to sacrifice a great deal of our freedom for our security. Fear of death is so powerful that people willingly accept the authority of a state which can save them, including surveillance measures which suspend their basic civil rights and confinement which verges on house arrest. Netanyahu’s or Orban’s delegitimization of the parliament or the supreme court are the normal fodder of anti-democratic authoritarian leaders.

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Lessons learned? – Learning lessons!

by Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus, Department of Chemistry, Bielefeld University, Germany

Questioned how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the future, especially regarding science and academic culture, I find myself constantly re-aligning my thoughts along with progressing developments. The question itself appears somewhat premature, since the nature of a new equilibrium – should there be such a state at all – and pathways towards it remain quite unpredictable. To watch conditions change, globally, in just a few weeks has been interesting and
worrisome. Correspondingly, I assume for the state transition from before to after Covid-19 that surprises might be encountered along the way.

The crisis has been described widely as the most disruptive global experience since decades, with severe medical, ethical, economic, political, juridical, psychological, further social and other consequences. The situation also depends sensitively on the local circumstances. A rather personal view may thus be the only valid perspective. You may have guessed from the above terminology that I am a natural scientist (indeed, a senior professor of physical chemistry); this certainly influences my view. I will present my current thoughts in five brief paragraphs.

• Scientific contributions

In the past weeks, it appeared that science, all of a sudden, was publicly recognized – not as nice-to-have cultural accessory, but as systemically relevant. Science was and remains omnipresent in reports about infections and their spread, scenarios and probabilities, health conditions, test functionalities, potential medication, and vaccine developments. With unusual depth, politics and media request scientific reports and updates, and facts and figures as well as background explanations are sometimes reported by the hour. Equally impressive is the international level of activity and collaboration regarding the disease and measures against it. I cannot remember a period in which scientific activity seemed so important. Science is needed to fight the pandemic, obviously, and to explain processes and precautions. Biomedical contributions have been more prominently in the spotlight, but other disciplines are also concerned with various aspects of the massive impact of the pandemic.

It is a situation for multidisciplinary, creative thinking, not only for inspecting immediate problems and possible reactions. How do we wish to live in the future? How to establish precautions that the present situation might not become repetitive? The crisis has illustrated many influences that might not have been regarded in context. Now accepted views and business-as-usual routines could be reflected. New concepts and bold ideas could constructively challenge established thoughts about global interactions, production and logistics, work, healthcare, social systems, mobility and other factors. Scientists could be the group that might develop perspectives and become a driving force.

• Sustainable transport and production

Transportation and production have been challenged with disruptive changes. With traffic between countries stopped, airplanes on the ground, and people working from home, air quality has improved and energy use decreased. Economy, prosperity, timely production, and delivery of goods have dominated public debates, rather than measures to plan more sustainable action for the future. A consequence of the current crisis regarding transport specifically might be a different split between air, land, and sea transportation, a different mix between transport of passengers and goods. Foremost, however, a different balance of economic versus ecologic aspects would be desirable.

Climate and pollution crises have not gone away. Health concerns and shutdown of regular operations in many countries are causing gigantic economic burdens. Warning signs regarding climate change and environmental threats have currently sunken in priority, with media attending mainly to the Covid-19 crisis topic. Gigantic support plans for the economy could present welcome chances for innovative pathways towards more sustainable industries and transport options. Natural sciences and technical disciplines are well positioned to address such pathways, together with their colleagues in other fields.

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Mothers in Distress. And what does that have to do with the economy?

by Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve, Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida

Women who have children and earn their money through paid work have reached the limits of what they are able to bear. All the children, including teenagers, are now at home. The older ones aren’t allowed to get together, the younger are left staring at barricaded playgrounds. According to recent news reports it will be the middle of May, before schools start to reopen – even at a limited capacity. That means for months mothers are the sole entertainers of small children and are also responsible for homeschooling the older children. There seems to be total chaos at the kindergartens. Are they open or not?

The offers of help are ambivalent. The government emphasizes that there is capacity. So why aren’t women using them? You guessed right: out of fear of accusations of being bad mothers, who “give their children away.” That was always a cliche to end any discussion about preschool care and now it is being revived when women are accused of placing their children in danger of a deadly virus in order to egotistically relax at her home office and work.

In extreme cases single mothers are pent-up 24/7 with their children, usually in cramped quarters where they have to work from home for the office or as a one woman business (often a precariat). These tiny businesses were mostly founded because women have to plan their lives around their children. Such a situation is a recipe for disaster. Mothers were previously supported by their network of women, starting with their own mothers, who are no longer allowed to help, because a quasi-house arrest for senior citizens, even if a grandmother is young, she is supposed to keep her distance from her daughter and grandchildren. If the mother does not follow the rules she will be the one accused of any infection! When mothers so exasperated that they turn on the television or tablet, they are considered bad mothers; also if they don’t want to cook. Remember: mothers are always to blame. She is either accused of doing “too much” or “too little” or not the right thing.

The policy of outsourcing care for the elderly by temporarily importing Romanian and Hungarian nurses has proven to be horrendous. Now when all the support of the healthcare workers is gone, guess who will take over this care? A hint: it will probably not be the son-in-law.

At times when it would be feasible for mothers and fathers to equally divide up work at their home offices and childcare – a new study shows that again, that is not happening. Even when the chairman of the board and the general director cannot claim to be indispensable and must run off to a business trip or a meeting. It also turns out that male scholars increase their publication load while female researchers do not.

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