Dealing with Covid in an interconnected world
As the world continues to search for biomedical and social solutions to mitigate the spread and effects of the fast-spreading global Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself, like other social scientists across the globe, reading more about sociological theories of health care and diseases.
Covid-19 has not only overstretched the existing boundaries of scientific inquiry, it has made us realize that all knowledge is incomplete. As Francis Nyamnjoh aptly notes, “incompleteness is the normal order of things, and that conviviality invites us to celebrate and preserve incompleteness and mitigate the delusions of grandeur that come with ambitions and claims of [knowledge] completeness.”
If anything, the global pandemic has shown us that both hard and soft sciences need each other more than ever before, as the world frantically searches for a sustainable solution to Covid-19. This in many ways flies in the face of the recent push by a number of universities to anoint science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as the sine qua non of modern higher education, thereby displacing the traditional science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) degree program model.
Buoyed by the much-anticipated Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the rush to roll out what is often described as Education 5.0 (which encapsulates teaching, research, community engagement, innovation, and commercialization), some universities and higher education officials have publicly disparaged humanities degree programs as irrelevant to society’s needs. They also claim that such programs contribute to the production of idle graduates who do not possess the innovative skills required in the rapidly changing world of work.
Some universities have embarked on a root and branch approach to redesigning course curricula by simply scrapping all “useless” humanities degree programs in order to comply with the “revolutionary” epoch. For instance, in Zimbabwe, a headline in the Sunday Mail referred to a plan by government to scrap or remodel programs producing “useless degrees.”
Notwithstanding changes in these curricula, it is interesting to note that most of the social interventions being designed and implemented across the world to push back against Covid-19, such as social distancing, self-quarantine, hygienic measures, and lockdowns, are steeped in the social sciences. Understanding people’s sociocultural and psychological behavior and practices surrounding the washing of hands, forms of greeting, social distancing, and self-quarantine falls within the purview of the social sciences and humanities. Behavior change communication, which is essential for the successful rollout of water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects, is also anchored in journalism, communication, and media studies. This further buttresses the point that soft and hard sciences must coexist in order to provide holistic solutions to the world.
It is clear from the foregoing that hard and soft sciences are complementary and need each other to address emerging and recurrent societal and global challenges. More than ever before, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity must undergird our research, teaching, and community engagement activities as we strive to understand and devise ways of ending the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a world characterized by hyperinterconnectedness, it is easier to import and export viruses and bacteria, largely through our bodies and the modes of transportation we use on a regular basis. It is within this context of vulnerability and exposure to systemic risk and hazards that the notion of “risk society” provides us with analytical terms to make sense of our current situation.
As a social theorist, I am inclined to deploy Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck’s concept of “risk society” in order to explain “coupled risk” in an ever-changing and interconnected world where systemic vulnerabilities and uncertainties pose a danger to the whole ecosystem. The concept was first coined by Beck to refer to the manner in which modern society organizes itself in response to risk.3 In short, risk denotes the systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by developmental processes such as modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. In such a society, risk depends on decisions, which are industrially produced and politically reflexive.
In the same vein, Giddens views a global risk society as increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety and security), which generates the notion of risk.4 Building on the notion of globalization, he argues that such a society brings about a whole range of problems, risks, and dangers to social life, states, and peoples, as well as man’s natural environment.
Modern society, thus, has become a global risk society in the sense that it is increasingly preoccupied with debating, preventing, and managing risks that it has produced by itself. This is partly because these risks cannot be restricted to one country. In the age of globalization, these risks affect all countries and all social classes. In short, they have global, regional, national, and local consequences.
Both scholars agree that mankind’s impact on nature produces a range of risks and dangers that have unintentionally created a risk society. These new risks, dangers, security threats, and uncertainties of living cannot be controlled nationally or by the state. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, risks and threats cannot be confined to national borders. Like capital, viruses and bacteria are highly and globally mobile.
The fight against Covid-19 has illustrated that there are risks that do not vary by nationality, wealth, or social origin, but present a threat to all human societies. Anxiety has enveloped our global risk society. Fear has become an ever-present phenomenon as people attempt to find ways to preserve human life.
The ways in which Covid-19 has been presented on our print, broadcast, and digital media speak volumes about the insertion of risk into our reporting. Similarly, the manner in which our health-care infrastructure has been organized and reconfigured also highlights the institutionalization of risk in our decision-making.Even the contact screening and tracing of potential carriers of Covid-19 reveal some kind of risk management. This is partly because following up on someone’s social network and vectors of transmission demonstrates the need to manage the possible risk that they could fuel the spread of Covid-19. This normalization of the surveillance state and architecture as the world tries to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 further highlights the kinds of technological solutionism used to mitigate risk in a vulnerable and increasingly interdependent world. The uncertainties associated with global challenges like climate change, disease outbreaks, and terrorism cannot be separated from wider societal developments. Technological rationalization and developmental processes carry with them unintended consequences with ecological, economic, social, and political ramifications.
In order to address some of these global concerns, there is need for the hybridization of epistemologies. Thus, any claim to possessing a monopoly of scientific truth is bound to give us partial knowledge and diagnosis. Besides carrying out vaccine tests in the laboratory, there is need for anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, communication practitioners, language experts, etc., to address the social, cultural, linguistic, and behavioral change aspects of Covid-19.
At this moment in time, various disciplines ought to reflect critically on our development processes. We need various fields of study to revisit our hygienic practices, review our social distancing measures, and unpack concepts like modernization and health that we have normalized for a long time.
Possibly, this period of global lockdowns will help us reimagine sustainable development processes, rethink equitable and accessible public health infrastructure, and recalibrate social welfare systems and policies to cater to marginalized groups and communities. The role of the state must be revisited in this period. We must also bear in mind that the dividends of development processes are disproportionately distributed in any given society.
Given that diseases are a social phenomenon from a sociological perspective, it is imperative for hard and soft sciences to complement rather than compete against each other during ongoing efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. This is the time to recover what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the “sociology of absences.”5 In this regard, universities must endeavor to arrive at a “totality of knowledge” without necessarily marginalizing or discrediting other epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies.
Any form of coloniality of knowledge must be resisted as promoting a partial form of knowing and addressing societal challenges. Instead of promoting epistemic trespassing, this article must be read as a clarion call for a much more nuanced take on knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption. It is a call for reflexive knowledge production in order to address systemic risks and uncertainties.
While it has become ostensibly clear from the above discussion that we live in a global risk society, it is of the utmost importance to use any tool of knowledge creation at our disposal to push back against the deleterious impact of Covid-19. Universities, as centers of knowledge production, must play a valuable role in terms of producing masks, sanitizers, and other related paraphernalia. They must also provide the necessary critiques against prejudicial and elitist biomedical interventions.
No discipline must be left out in our quest to find sustainable social and biomedical interventions. There is need to strengthen both hard and soft sciences in our recurriculation efforts so that we can address recurring societal pandemics like Covid-19.