Tropes and stereotypes exist in the many comparisons of the responses to COVID-19 in China and the United States. I focus here on a less mentioned reason: the differing imaginaries of the public held by policymakers and scientific and medical experts.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its devastating march around the globe and across the United States, only those who dismiss statistics about its deadly toll or denigrate the pain of those afflicted can ignore the handwriting on the chalkboard: We ignore at our peril the biological foundations of our being and the evolutionary processes that have shaped and continue to change our natural and social worlds. From the functioning of our social institutions to the consequences of our social divisions, nothing about us stands apart from nature.
The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of what we do as sociologists, throwing into sharp relief the dangers of adhering to individualism and disregarding the social mechanisms of cooperation and scientific/occupational expertise that organize the myriad situations of everyday life. As the pandemic reveals the inequalities and contradictions in our society, sociologists engaged in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EM/CA) are uniquely placed to examine what happens when taken-for-granted assumptions and interactional practices change rapidly.
The work of a non-profit in rural Montana, Blackfoot Challenge (BC), to coordinate a community response to threats posed by carnivores, can provide insight on how to manage the social dynamics of the pandemic. A grizzly bear and a coronavirus are quite different, but collective action is needed to handle both, requiring agreement on the definition of the problem and enough participation in the solutions that they are effective.
Financial crises tend to have a long-lasting effect on societies. COVID-19 will be no exception given that its economic and social impact is fueled by a public-health emergency that is difficult to curb and that is putting tremendous pressure on healthcare systems around the world.
The unequal impacts of COVID-19 demonstrate an urgent need for sociological interrogations of disability as a social category and axis of inequality commensurate with race, class, and gender and intersecting with them. While disability can be a marker of health status, it is also a unique social category with particular politics structuring disabled people’s lives and reflecting interlocking systems of oppression. We provide examples of how the pandemic reveals disability is a societally mediated category of existence that is (de)valued in particular ways.
An official in Cairo, Illinois dispatched a message to his counterparts in Washington, DC. He warned, the “country below is in the hands of a howling mob.” Locals not yet touched by the disease went into lockdown. In the absence of permanent public health officials or institutions, coalitions of citizens and elected officials living in uninfected areas took up arms to impose “shotgun” quarantines to fend off outsiders.
After a messy, partisan fight in the State Legislature and State Supreme Court, Wisconsin held an in-person election on April 7, 2020. At that point the state had confirmed 2,500 COVID-19 cases and lost at least 92 people to the virus, with the majority of the suffering concentrated in Milwaukee’s Black community. As a poll worker in Madison, I spent election day behind a Plexiglas window, wearing a homemade mask, checking voters’ names in the poll book. Some voters came wearing masks and gloves. Some wrapped their IDs in plastic to avoid contact.
To slow the spread of the coronavirus, schools across the United States are expecting students to continue learning at home. That means attending real-time class meetings, completing worksheets and online modules, and even taking exams online. Unfortunately, some schools are also holding students accountable for at-home learning, basing grades, course placements, and college eligibility on work completed at home. That accountability, I will argue, has the potential to exacerbate longstanding inequalities in school.
Founded at the turn of the 21st century, our section has long been committed to unpacking the complex web of relationships that exist between humans and other animals. As COVID-19 can be traced to exposure to animals used for food (likely in wet markets or piggeries), our subfield is perhaps ideally positioned to offer critical insight.