The socio-cultural implications of COVID-19
Worldwide, the COVID-19 response has been largely premised on physical distancing, though this has, unfortunately, been discursively referred to in formal and informal discourse as social distancing. There is a big difference between the two concepts, with physical distancing not necessarily precluding social connectedness, whereas social distancing unavoidably presumes disconnectedness.
But for physical distancing not to also engender social distancing and inter-personal disconnectedness, certain societal conditions need to be met and made available indiscriminately. These include, first and foremost, access to basic infrastructure such as shelter, internet and basic everyday living needs. Sadly, across the world, and even within some developed societies, this has not always been the case. Entrenched social inequalities and economic marginalization have resulted in large proportions of the world’s populations being deprived of the most basic of human needs, let alone the capacity to be physically distant while at the same time socially connected and adequately supported to meet living needs.
The problem of social and economic inequalities are amplifying the challenge of managing the rapid spread of COVID-19 globally, but what has also emerged is the systematic racism, particularly against people of Asian background, in Western émigré societies. Indeed, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of racist attacks in many countries. This is not altogether a new phenomenon; a significant existing body of evidence shows that at times of crises – be they economic, environmental, security or health-related – minority groups are often made scapegoats and are subjected to racist, exclusionary, often violent discourses and practices.
COVID-19 is already showing us a variety of patterns of racism aimed at Asian people ranging from cyber bullying to physical attacks, racist trolling, and a variety of xenophobic conspiracy theories that have been articulated not only by ordinary citizens but also some politicians and world leaders. None of this serves the intercultural dialogue agenda, with its emphasis on cross-cultural contact, mutual understanding, respectful engagement and inter-communal solidarity.
Yet, perhaps one of the main paradoxes of this pandemic is that the challenges of physical distancing and disruption to the normal service provision systems has meant that solidarity, both local and transnational, has also come to the fore of our collective responses.
Indeed, we have seen many creative community-led practices emerge in response to COVID-19 lockdowns that reflect the core principles of intercultural dialogue. These range from the emergence of real-world examples, such as citizens of New York, Paris and many other cities gathering nightly to applaud healthcare workers, to online intra-community solidarity, where local neighborhoods work together to ensure that the most vulnerable, the elderly and the less well-off are also supported and cared for. During a time when fewer social services are being delivered, and often not in the traditional mode that many recipients are accustomed to, acts of altruism and care are being reported on a daily basis – from individuals and communities in local neighborhoods delivering shopping to the needy, to checking in on elderly neighbours and others in need of support.
It is true that citizenship has emerged as the main marker of belonging. However, as governments tighten border controls and close airports, many groups within civil society have been working hard to advocate for and demand rights and protections for non-citizens, especially asylum seekers and temporary workers.
Internationally, and in terms of relations between nation states, transnational solidarity has become at once a victim of COVID-19 and a key component in the global collective response strategy. Indeed, initially at least, transnational solidarity was sacrificed in the rush to contain, suppress and hopefully eliminate COVID-19. This was the case across many countries that hastily moved to shut their borders to non-citizens, stop international student mobility, shut down airports and all but stop international trade and tourism. These are all measures that represent a significant blow to globalization and its reliance on free movement of services, people and goods. It is equally a blow to the guiding principles of intercultural dialogue, which require deliberative engagement on issues of mutual concerns, including border crossings and exchange of those goods and services that affect the lives and livelihoods of individuals across borders.
But the current COVID-19 situation also offers us hope for new ways of forming and sustaining solidarity across cultural backgrounds, faith traditions, political systems and geographic borders. This new, more positive transnational solidarity was showcased in the form of intercultural, transnational ‘medical diplomacy’, where countries have been sending doctors, paramedics, medicines and medical equipment across borders to those countries hit most severely by the pandemic and that lacked certain medical expertise and supplies. The examples of Cuba, China and India are good cases in point, where doctors, medicines and medical equipment have been respectively used to engage in this new form of transnational solidary at a time of acute health crisis. This form of transnational engagement highlights the deeply intersected nature of our globalized world and the extent to which it is not only intimately hyper-connected but, more critically, irreversibly inter-dependent. Our post-COVID-19 world order must heed the lessons of this pandemic as it reconfigures international relations, intercultural engagement and transnational solidarity in ways that will ensure we are better able to deal with future crises when they happen again.
The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and its rapid spread across the world, exemplifies this inter-dependence and highlights the urgent need for more collaboration across medical, technological, economic, environmental and social fields in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all global citizens irrespective of geography, ethnicity, religion or level of domestic economic development.
What pandemics such as COVID-19 are exposing is that the global community will only be as capable of containing highly infectious viruses as the public health system of its least developed nations will be supported. Eliminating the current health threat, as well as other global threats, requires not less but more transnational solidarity, more intercultural dialogue and more equitable capacity-building around the aspirational Sustainable Development Goals. Transnational solidarity and intercultural dialogue are not only worth pursuing for their utopian, cosmopolitan and ethical tendencies, but also for their practical, critical and transformational roles in ensuring the safety, wellbeing and sustainability of the entire global community.
Professor Fethi Mansouri, PhD, is Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at the Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the UNESCO Chairholder for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, and UNESCO UniTwin Convenor for Inter-religious Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding (IDIU).
Fethi Mansouri | Alfred Deakin Institute | UNESCO Chair Cultural Diversity and Social Justice
(2019, 2nd edition in French): ‘L'interculturalisme à la croisée des chemins: perspectives comparatives sur les concepts, les politiques et les pratiques’. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
* ICD = Intercultural Dialogue
The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO. The designations used in this publication and the presentation of the data contained therein do not imply the expression of any opinion on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of countries, territories, cities or areas or their authorities, or concerning the layout of their borders or boundaries.