Stampa Articolo

A socio-historical analysis of the 2020 corona pandemic: between old and new virtues and vices


Bogotà (Colombia), Street Art (ph. Juan Barreto)

dialoghi oltre il virus

di  Zakaria Sajir, Rafael Ruiz Andrés  [*]

14 aprile


The corona pandemic has certainly challenged the illusionary dualism between humans and nature, as argued by Yoan Molinero [1]. The number of fatalities connected to the COVID-19 has not only reminded humankind of its fragile nature but also re-awaken in most of us, our primordial instincts; in the age of early post-capitalism [2] these takes the form of rushing to supermarkets to buy toilet paper and canned food in spite of government advice, before rushing back home and hide in our modern “caves” until all is over.

Not only has the COVID-19 shocked our daily life, but also the intellectual panorama. Among all the well-recognised voices that have reflected on the current crisis in the past days, there has been a strong division between the most apocalyptic visions [3] and those who believe in a promised Paradise after the quarantine [4].

We wish to be more nuanced, and depart our reflection from the statement that both threats and opportunities are mixed in this situation, an approach that is also shared by Yuval Noah Harari [5]. According to the Israeli thinker, this pandemic will lead us to a crossroads. The first choice humankind will have to face is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second choice is instead between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. We share Harari’s moderate perspective, far from Apocalypses and Paradises; yet in this article we want to adopt a framework of analysis capable of combining the generation of new social dynamics and the reappearance of established dynamics through a socio-historic approach that embraces both a synchronic and a diachronic perspective [6].

The Corona pandemic has pushed states, organisations, and people on the one hand to set up new forms of solidarity and strengthen pre-existing forms of cooperation with their lights and shadows. Yet on the other hand this global health crisis has exacerbated old frictions and given rise to new tensions. In the sections below we will provide our reflections on these dual dynamics of “old” and “new” by isolating some examples of solidarity and tension, which bridge the recent “past” and present by inducing potential social change, as described by Harari.

In this paper, we will analyse both vectors past/present and solidarities/tensions through a multi-level perspective [7], which is concretized in two layers: inter-state solidarities (macro level) and intra-state solidarities (meso level). We want to complement Harari’s vision by delving into an attitudinal analysis of States, collectives and individuals, the very same actors who will cope with the changes exceptionally outlined by Harari. These two levels will be complemented in the conclusions with a third one: micro-level, that is the individual sphere, identified as the actual crossroad of this coronavirus crisis.

Although some of the examples we illustrate here are already known to some of the readers, we kindly invite you to reflect one again on these episodes. The most important part of the social phenomena we see first-hand does not reside in meta-conceptual frameworks, which often bend reality to match theoretical explanations. Rather, the essence of social dynamics resides precisely in our daily reality, which is apparently well-known to us, but is revealed in its fullness only after careful revision. In other words, if there is any possible change after this crisis, it may already be “blowing in the wind”.


Rafh, Palestina, (ph. Abed, afp)


Solidarity is undoubtedly one of the pillars of our societies, despite the fact that we are all living in a digital swarm where everybody is as connected as they are isolated from the rest [8]. This remaining solidarity was already seen in the shock of the previous financial crisis: the elderly supported their families in the countries most affected by the Great Recession between the late 2000s and early 2010s. In our current exceptional circumstances, solidarity between different actors has once again come to the fore through various initiatives. To paraphrase the philosopher Levinas [9], it is in “solitude” where “solidity” is forged. The “solitude-solidity” nexus that has been imposed on all of us during the quarantine can be a framework for the gestation of ingrained solidarities: solitude, solidity and solidarity comes from the same Latin root. In the isolation we may find our great need for the other and discover new and creative ways to re-establish the social ties during the quarantine and after.

Inter-state solidarities 

In line with Harari’s statement, the solidarity needed for the future seems to be already being built up through various inter-state initiatives.

In the absence of a consolidated approach from the European Union, Germany has acted so far on its own initiative by sending masks ventilators and admitting patients from France and Italy in a number of Landers [10].

Moreover, despite the distance and the tensions that have arisen following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the 17+1 initiative sponsored by China with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and China were the first ones to react to the coronavirus crisis in Europe. Apart from the economic aid provided by both state powers and the efforts made in Europe in the fight against COVID-19 by some giants such as the Alibaba group, Chinese medical workers travelled all over the world to provide assistance to some of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic and provide advice on the best strategies to tackle it [11].

Although the United States of America (USA) initially held a more isolationist stance, in later phases of the pandemic the USA finally joined the global solidarity network. President Trump, after urging the American industry to produce respirators for the national hospitals, has announced that medical supplies will be sent to countries like France, Spain or Italy [12].

Could these different examples be a decisive step towards the stabilization or development of a multilateral global order far from the block dynamics of the clash of civilizations as described by Samuel Huntington? [13] We cannot be naive: along with the charitable intentions that could have guided these actions, we should not forget that these are also mapping out future global geopolitics. We might be witnessing the fatigue of the United States and the domination of China in the international scene, achieving, via humanitarian means, even what it could not achieve through its Silk Road Project: the inclusion of Europe on its side of the chessboard [14].

In any case, all these solidarity initiatives, if they are genuinely a sign of a new path being taken, they should also include the eternally forgotten Global South. The poorest areas of the globe have once again disappeared from the media landscape. Any inter-state solidarity that wants to trace a path to the future must look to the Global South as stakeholders and not as “neo-colonised” territories. If not, we will simply be witnessing the confirmation of a mere change of players in the geopolitical chessboard rather than a genuine new global solidarity order. The fact that the pandemic is a global phenomenon should bring us closer to understanding the meaning of that famous line by John Donne, later taken up by Ernest Hemingway: when you hear — albeit in the distance — the sound of the bell, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you!

Intra-national solidarities 

In addition to the unquestionable forms of solidarity shown by workers employed in the sectors more directly involved in the management of this crisis, we should highlight the irruption of spontaneous forms of solidarity in civil society. This resurrection of civil society is particularly significant because it is at odds with the way in which individualism has progressively replaced collectivism in the last decades of 20th century and at the dawn of the third millennium [15] when all the previous community networks have been sacrificed for the individual’s sake.

Despite the weakening of the role of civil society in many countries in recent decades, throughout the pandemic, the members of the civil society have taken the lead showing some of the most interesting and undoubtedly genuine dynamics of solidarity, which — according to some of the thinkers who shared their reflection on the coronavirus crisis — could be the beginning of a different model of solidarity action in the future [16] provided that these diverse civil-society-based forms of solidarity may be able to overcome the multiple tensions that we will discuss in the next section.

An example that comes to mind is the “ritual of applause”, which has spread from Italy to the rest of Europe, in which people are gather at their balconies and windows to pay homage to those workers who are performing in the hospitals and other professionals and volunteers who are providing an essential service in these days [17].

The clapping ritual is the closest substitute for active participation that has remained to those confined to their homes, making them feel part of the fight of their civil societies against coronavirus. The clapping ritual is a symbolic dynamic that, as all symbolic social dynamics do connect individuals and the society as a whole [18], being a new and original expression of one of the oldest anthropological mechanisms. Along with this example and also related to our symbolic nature, we have been witnesses of collective singing with the neighbours. Apart from the content of these songs, which ranges from national anthems to popular songs, what really matters is that even though confinement has relegated us to the individual sphere the music sang together is able to create a sense of community through the harmonic fusion of different voices, and confirming that we are not alone. We are in this together.

Beyond doctors and supermarket staff, there are people who cannot be strictly confined in their homes either because of their commitment to the most vulnerable sectors. In all the countries experiencing the coronavirus crisis, the most historically mobilized sectors of civil society continue their cooperation through various initiatives in which they creatively have to balance their work with the constraints of the lockdown. From services to provide telephone assistance to those who are most alone to groups of volunteers delivering food to people who live on the streets, civil society shows its brightest side in its performance. Particularly significant is the work of groups like the Community of Sant’ Egidio, which unites people from different nations in its work through transnational networks [19]: the experiences lived by the volunteers caring for homeless in the countries that first suffered the crisis (Italy) are serving as a guideline for those who are now experiencing it (Spain). Furthermore, in this transnational network, they are promoting an Easter global campaign to send economic aid to the poorest countries to assist them in their fight against the pandemic.

The fight of civil society against the pandemic is also visible in social networking sites through hashtags — #StayHome, #QuedateEnCasa, #ResteChezToi,  #RestateACasa — promoting creative forms of online civic engagement and channelling exhortations to stay at home and respect the confinement so as not to saturate the hospitals. Together with this revival of civil society, could the quarantine be a turning point in which many of us rediscover the value of the humanities and the arts? Museums and theatres have opened their virtual spaces whilst musicians have taken the initiative by streaming their individual and collective performances to make the confinement more bearable. A myriad of videos, songs, and poems online invite people to stay at home and enjoy the pleasure of arts and culture in these challenging times.  Ironically it is these very disciplines, which in recent decades have been so devalued in school curricula for allegedly not being efficient enough, that give us today that extra something to face this critical situation more humanly. Moreover, these disciplines can probably, as has already happened in the past, guide us in our reflections and thus allow these old and new forms of solidarity to create alternative social models after the lockdown.


Parigi (ph. Franck Fife, afp)


Together with what has been described so far, old and new forms of tension are surfacing, exalted by the very strain that the virus implies for our social networks.  The dark places of humanity, such as those that pushed Primo Levi to coin the term “Gray Zone” where the boundaries between evil and good are blurred, and where tension appears [20]. Although these gray zones might become familiar at some point in our lives, the surrealistic condition of reality-fiction in which the virus has plunged us all at once makes them even more evident.

Inter-state tensions

Robin Niblett wrote on March 20 that with this pandemic, “it seams highly unlikely in this context that the world will return to the idea of mutually beneficial globalization that defined the early 21st century” [21]. Other global thinkers broadly share this idea, yet nowadays we are not sure whether in the future states will withdraw from hyperglobalization — as Stephen Walt [22] calls it —or whether they will instead move towards a “More China-Centric globalization” — as Kishore Mahbubani thinks [23].

The certainty we have today is that along with this pandemic old tensions have resurfaced between the advocates of globalisation as we know it and its detractors. In fact, long before the virus appeared and spread around the world, many people were already pondering the merits and faults of globalization [24]. Today these tensions present themselves in a new form, but the essence hasn’t changed: globalisation is to blame — even for the virus, as wrote the author of “The Butterfly Defect”, Ian Goldin [25].

As mentioned in the previous section, it is certainly true that Russia and China were the first to provide aid to the European countries most affected by the pandemic, sending medical equipment, personnel and giving valuable advice on the most efficient way to contain the advance of the virus. However, the same aid mission from Russia directed to Italy, dubbed “Russia with love”, has generated strong controversy about the real purpose of this assistance and especially about the presence of Russian soldiers on Italian soil, a few steps from NATO bases. So much so as to result in a public diplomatic skirmish between La Stampa journalist Jacopo Iacoboni [26] and the Russian Ambassador to Italy, Sergey Razov. This was an episode that revived Cold War style accusations and counter-accusations, and which ultimately required the intervention of the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte [27].

According to Stephen Walt the pandemic will have the effect of strengthening the state and the nationalist movements at the expense of inter-national organisations like the European Union (EU). These tensions are more visible today than ever in Europe and are juxtaposing two different visions of the EU in a battle that will decide its future [28]. Far from the spirit of the founders of the European community, the long negotiations between national government leaders to find a common solution to the pandemic have only had the effect of revealing and confirming a dangerous breach among the top of the class — the northern states including Germany and the Netherlands— and the southern European countries — hardest hit by the pandemic — led by Italy and Spain and including France [29].

These tensions are old to the extent that they re-propose the same fronts that during the Eurozone crisis pitted advocates of fiscal transfer against advocates of fiscal discipline [30]. However, we can consider them new tensions because of the background of global health crisis that caused them, for the intensity at which these tensions are appearing at the institutional level, and last but not least, because these tensions are unprecedentedly dangerous as they are leaving deep scars on the peoples historically most faithful to the European integration project. For the time being this degree of popular alienation from the EU is expressed through symbolic acts: the mayors of small Italian municipalities lower the EU flag in protest to the decision of the European Council to postpone any decision; the naive attempts of boycotting organised via social network sites by the citizens of southern countries against the products of northern countries; and the EU flag burning that is doing the rounds on Italian social media. Yet the truth is that no one knows the outcome of the historical event we are witnessing and how these inter-state tensions will develop and most of all whether euro-sceptics like Matteo Salvini will be able to grab this golden opportunity to make political capital out of this misery.

Refugees fleeing from some of the most dangerous countries in the world — Syria and Afghanistan — had already produced strong tensions between EU countries during the refugee crisis and produced a domestic backlash against immigration and served to strengthen extreme right-wing parties. Also during the pandemic people continue to flee from wars and persecution. The situation has turned even more critical according to some refugee rights groups following the Italian government’s decision to close domestic ports since these no longer be considered a safe place, until the end of the state of emergency. The arrival of new refugees on the southernmost island of Lampedusa has created tension with the locals who have expressed their concern about the dangerous overcrowding of the island [31].

Intra-national tensions

“The international system will, in turn, come under great pressure, resulting in instability and widespread conflict within and across countries” wrote John Allen [32]. We believe indeed that the tensions revived by the pandemic are apparent also within national borders. There are two issues in particular to highlight: firstly, are the tensions arising from the conflict between freedom and security emphasised by the exceptional measures that have been taken to prevent the spread of the virus. We are thinking for example about the tension between the religious freedom requested by Haredi Jews in Israel and the strict health regulations [33]. This conflict has had a different outcome in China. According to Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, the lockdown has been instrumental in continuing repression against the Christian minority [34].  This type of tension is probably here to stay and might become one of the crucial crossroads in the aftermath of the Coronavirus crisis.

Secondly, apart from the mental health problems associated with long forced confinement, old tensions worsen during the pandemic; we are referring to the social cancers of misogyny and racism that manifested themselves in clear and direct ways but also in more insidious ways. For example, although the government recognised that allowing the demonstrations on March 8th to proceed normally was ill advised, various sectors of society took the opportunity to express veiled criticism of the feminist movement. Moreover, during the forced and prolonged cohabitation, various sources around the world confirm an increase in cases of gender-based violence [35].

We also record cases of racism against various ethnic groups. For example, in the United States, where COVID-19 has been renamed by the President of the USA himself and his closest advisors as “China virus”, citizens of Asian descent have been subject to racial prejudice [36]. In Italy, old forms of racism against immigrants and “non-EU” immigrants resurfaced during the pandemic. So much so that many people have been asking on social network sites why only Italians are dying of coronavirus but not immigrants (“extracomunitari”). The most audacious ones intervene during the open phone sessions of live broadcasts to express their hope that more immigrants will die and less Italians. In Italy, the intervention of a virologist [37] is required to confirm the syllogism: the coronavirus can infect all human beings > the “extracomunitari” are human > also the “extracomunitari” can be hospitalised for coronavirus infections. Pathetically, all this mixture of ignorance, racism, malevolence, and dehumanization to the detriment of the “other”, is simply treated as another case of fake news.


Rio de Janeiro: il presidente brasiliano, Jair Bolsonaro, con la maschera antivirus

Conclusion: more hope than optimism  [38]

 “Man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”

— Primo Levi  [39]

 It is certainly too early to measure the consequences and the plasticity of the changes discussed here and in the absence of data we cannot even afford great optimism for the future. Far from just emptying our public spaces and locking us back into our homes, this pandemic, as Stefano Massini [40] said, has “infected” the very concept of time, taking away our control of the future and leading us to discover that it was just an illusion of control. Our goal was not to add more predictions about the post-coronavirus era, but rather to share our reflections on the basis of the old and new forms of tension and solidarity that reappeared during the pandemic. Only a naive person in the absence of necessary data can cling to optimism. Unlike the authoritative global thinkers who took part in the debate, we do not think that the world will necessarily turn into a better, worse place after the crisis. It is likely that in the future we will go through a phase of restructuring of the global order. However, much of this future will depend on one key player: the individual; this is the last level we wanted to introduce in our final reflections.

The real test will be on the day the quarantine ends. Three possible scenarios are envisaged: if the individuals who have went through this experience have reacted by developing or integrating into networks of solidarity, they are in a position to be citizens with greater power to claim more solidarity both at state and international level. Others may leave with more mistrust and fear of the “other” and transfer their attitude to votes that defend these positions in the political arena. There is also a third option, which although it may seem unlikely today, has its reason to exist: once out of the pandemic tunnel and back to our daily routine made of work, commuting, weekends out, family, children, commitments, we can perhaps forget all this and treat it as if it was all just a bad dream.

The most important point is that all three options have the same chance of happening. That is why we cannot afford the luxury of optimism. We can hope that those who today have discovered that it is time to move from the individual sphere to a society where individuals take care of each others; that those who have (re)discovered the work of solidarity tomorrow will not remain silent, but will raise their voices louder and escape from the condition of voluntary servitude [41].

Perhaps in the end the pandemic will not bring any radical change, rather this change will be brought by these very individuals with their actions. In them ultimately lies our Hope.

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 43, maggio 2020
[*] Abstract
Durante le ultime settimane abbiamo assistito a una proliferazione interminabile d’interpretazioni di come la pandemia causata dal COVID-19 cambierà il mondo che ci attende dopo la quarantena. Con questo articolo non intendiamo aggiungere un’analisi predittiva alla lunga lista di quelle già esistenti. Crediamo che sia ancora prematuro sapere in quale direzione si svilupperà il domani e, con questo, avere un’idea chiara dell’impatto che questa crisi avrà. L’obiettivo di questo articolo è più che altro quello di riflettere da una prospettiva socio-storica sulle diverse realtà emerse in seguito all’impatto del coronavirus, alcune delle quali inedite, mentre altre proseguono con la evoluzione di dinamiche del passato.
Ci soffermeremo su due vettori dove è possibile osservare questa realtà bifronte del nuovo e del vecchio: solidarietà e tensioni. Mediante distinti esempi tratti da differenti livelli di analisi (specialmente un macro livello di reti interstatali ed un meso livello di collettività intrastatali), riflettiamo su come la pandemia del COVID-19 ha avuto l’effetto di spingere gli Stati e la società civile a costruire nuove forme di solidarietà e a rafforzare le forme di cooperazione preesistenti, che si sono sviluppate in parallelo con l’irruzione di nuove tensioni e la recrudescenza di vecchi attriti.
Al termine di questa analisi, diamo un breve sguardo al futuro, ma non per farne una riflessione pessimistica o ottimistica. Non crediamo infatti che il mondo diventerà necessariamente un posto migliore o peggiore dopo la crisi; tuttavia, siamo convinti che gran parte delle alternative del domani dipenderanno da un attore chiave: l’individuo. Dinanzi a un ingenuo ottimismo, sosteniamo la speranza che questo individuo, in seguito allo shock del COVID-19, possa convertirsi in una piattaforma per la gestazione di un mondo in cui le reti di solidarietà prevalgono sulle dinamiche di tensione.

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Zakaria Sajir, ha conseguito un dottorato in Sociologia (2018) presso la University of Leicester nel Regno Unito attraverso uno studio comparato di natura quantitativa sulle forme di partecipazione politica espresse dai membri di cinque comunità di origine marocchina residenti nelle città di Bruxelles, Lione, Torino, Barcellona e Madrid. Dal 2016 è membro nella commissione direttiva e responsabile del team britannico a livello sub-nazionale nell’ambito del COST Action ETHMIGSURVEYDATA. Attualmente è visiting researcher presso il Consiglio Superiore delle Ricerche Scientifiche (CSIC).
Rafael Ruiz Andrés, ha un dottorato in Scienze Religiose dell’Università Complutense di Madrid (2019). La sua tesi ha affrontato il tema della revisione del processo di secolarizzazione sulla base di uno studio storico-sociale del caso spagnolo (1960-2019). Ha fatto parte del programma Europaeum, guidato dall’Università di Oxford, e ha svolto un soggiorno di pre-dottorato presso l’École Pratique des Hautes Études (Parigi). Attualmente collabora con l’Istituto di Scienze Religiose dell’Università Complutense ed è ricercatore della Fundación for Islamic Culture and Religious Tolerance.


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