Coronavirus (COVID-19): A socio-ethical overview

Dr. Fethi B Jomaa Ahmed*

 

A few months ago, the humanity was waiting for the New Year with good wishes for a healthy and prosperous year 2020. Perhaps nobody have had imagined the occurrence, scale, scope, and impact of the current pandemic. Irrespective of the skepticism around the theories and fundamental questions pertaining to the origin, nature, and spread of COVID-19 as well as the extent of transparency in reporting the figures and the scale of the virus, the uncontestable reality is that corona disease is now a global pandemic and a world fact.

Officially, COVID-19 appeared in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in China in December 2019 and spread out to the world at unprecedented speed affecting a wide range of people from all social classes around the globe. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified Coronavirus (COVID-19) as a global pandemic. Until today (April 8, 2020), almost all countries in the world have been affected by the pandemic with more than 1.5 million cases; nearly 90000 deaths, more than 320000 recovered, and yet no medicine or vaccine has been discovered. Moreover, it has inflicted an enormous amount of psychological, social, economic, and political harm on individuals, groups, communities, governments, and the international community.  

Regardless of the striking differences in the health, political, economic, social, and cultural systems between the affected countries, their natural and human resources as well as their financial and technological abilities, the response to the plague and the measures could basically be categorized into three: a) diagnosis and health support of affected cases, b) precautions to prevent and contain the spread of the coronavirus, and c) management of the different impacts of the on-going epidemic.

 The diagnosis and health support of effected cases has been facing major challenges including lack of or unavailability of sufficient medical equipment and material, inadequate health staff, and absence of robust health system and logistics. The speed and the large-scale spread of the virus have aggravated the situation and put a huge burden on the health system particularly in view of some deficiencies in the precautionary measures and the lack of commitment of some people to self-isolation, social distancing, and lockdown procedures.

The precautionary measures have varied from promoting personal hygiene such as washing hands to closure of educational and training institutions, places of gatherings, land and marine borders, and airspaces. Some governments have tightened the measures and imposed a curfew and a total lockdown. While almost all governments have taken measures to control the spread of the virus, it was obvious that there were structural differences that in turn have direct impact on either worsening or improving the situation. Based on the precautionary measures, governments could be classified into three categories: a) governments that have taken the pandemic seriously, acted swiftly and aggressively in all directions to contain the spread of the virus, b) governments that have taken measures gradually following the levels of spread and severity of the virus in their countries and in the world, and c) governments that have been very slow and reluctant in taking the necessary measures on time. This categorization reflects the quality of leadership in each country and the effectiveness of each government in serving the people, and protecting their well-being and lives. It also indicates the level of the political leaders’ commitment to preserving the public good and the truthfulness of their moral obligations toward their subjects. Many voices were very critical to the governments and leaders who have been reluctant or negligent and those who have been very slow in their response to the pandemic. These governments and leaders will certainly be held accountable because of their failure or recklessness in protecting the health and lives of their people as well as causing chaos in the social, economic and political systems during the time of this epidemic.

Besides, one of the most challenging factors for all governments is the nature of the response of the people to the processes and precautionary measures particularly self-isolation, social distancing, and lockdown. The level of awareness about the plague, outweighing between the public good and  the private good, understanding the way the infection is spreading, the level of severity of the virus, the people’s attitude and responsibility in curbing the spread of the disease, the commitment to the precautionary measures set by the relevant authorities, and nonresistance to adapt to a new lifestyle, norms, values, and etiquettes have remarkably made a difference in the condition in each country. The world witnessed that some people were reasonable and responsible in their reaction, others have overreacted, and some people were careless or even reckless. Some governments have relevant laws in place and have taken some punitive measures against those who breached the precautionary measures and endangered the public health. Other governments have not been strict enough in enforcing rules and regulations on all lawbreakers. However, some governments need to develop new laws to fill in the legislation gap and regulate the emerging problems. Besides, many governments paid more attention to awareness campaigns that have been communicated to their people through various means.      

To minimize the risk and control the damage caused by the plague, some governments have taken some social and economic measures to support their people and institutions. These measures included the elevation of interest on bank loans, granting grace periods for loan and rent payment, exemption from some taxes and utility charges for a limited period, and giving away some financial aid and incentives to less privileged and unemployed people as well as to the private sector especially to small and medium businesses. However, in recent days and after absorbing the shock of the plague, some governments have authorized some companies and businesses to resume their economic activities within strict health guidelines. This act is an attempt to face the challenge of creating some sort of balance between the health requirements, society needs, and economic subsistence.

  • The media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has so far been conventional as news bulletins focus as usual on numbers and stories. Some media agencies paid attention to the scientific analysis of the outbreak, promotion of positive values and precautionary measures, discussion of the psychological, social, economic and political consequences. However, media agencies could do better by putting more efforts into investigating the news about corona disease, seek the truth, and report it as it is. The media has to be cautious from falling into spreading fear, frustration, and terror among people by inflating numbers, reporting only sad stories and the negative consequences. For instance, according to the official figures the average number of deaths by COVID-19 since it began in December 2019 is approximately 20000 deaths per month. Meanwhile, the average monthly deaths due to cardiovascular diseases in the world is forty times higher than those who have died due to COVID-19. Moreover, the average number of deaths per month due to cancer disease in the world is approximately eight times higher than those who have died due to COVID-19. It is also important for the media to play a vital role in informing and educating the public about the pandemic by producing and broadcasting or publishing more scientific analysis of the pandemic and its impacts on all sectors and giving hope to people that one day this epidemic will come to an end.

Coronavirus has a huge impact on the socio-economic behavior of people all over the world in varying degrees. The following paragraphs highlight some of the significant changes:

  • Cleanliness and hygiene: personal and public cleanliness and hygiene have been boosted and standardized such as washing hands regularly, covering mouth and nose if sneezing or coughing, and yawning as well as sterilization of places and objects.
  • Salutation: Greeting styles have dramatically changed, as people do not shake hands, kiss, and hug each other anymore but greet from a distance.
  • Visits and communication: Family, friends and social visits have become very limited and people have resorted to replace face-to-face visits with communication via other communication means especially social media and online.
  • Restriction on freedoms: Most governments have imposed restrictions on freedoms particularly freedom of movement, travel, and gatherings. This temporary measure has huge social impact on tourism, outdoor as well as indoor activities such as going for picnic and BBQ, swimming, partying, going to the cinema, theatre, restaurants, looking around in malls, and going to religious places. Despite the fact that some people resisted this measure whether because they viewed it as aggression against their fundamental rights or because of not being used to such restriction and even because of negligence, people have generally sacrificed their rights for the best interest of the public good which is considered a great moral obligation.
  • Food behavior: Food habits have changed radically because people are now keener to consume wholesome food and beverages to maintain good health and enhance their immune system. Although, some people are still depending on ordering readymade meals from restaurants, the tendency to prepare homemade meals is growing very fast and those who do not know how to cook or prepare meals at home has put some efforts essentially by browsing the internet and watching YouTube videos to learn how to make healthy and delicious dishes. 
  • Work: Work methods, techniques, relations, and environment have gone through enormous changes. The world has never witnessed the widespread phenomenon of online work and digital employer-employee relations like what is happening these days. Yet, employees have much freedom and lots of flexibility in performing their work with new ways of work assignments and follow up conducted remotely. To many managers, employees, and customers the work environment has become less stressful and perhaps more productive. Moreover, employers are making some cost cuts as works and tasks have been done with less or no expenses as no consumption of electricity and water, and not the usage of office equipment. This change requires facing many challenges including boosting the moral commitment to work ethics, developing new work guidelines, ensuring the appropriate infrastructure especially the IT and digital technologies, and provide the employees with the right skills to use the technology and work remotely. Employer-employee relations, inter-employer relations, employer-stakeholder relations, and employer-customer relations (including instructors/students relations) have essentially become virtual particularly in countries, institutions, and business that has the appropriate IT and networking infrastructure.  
  • Shopping behavior: More people have shifted from walk-in shopping to online shopping as it is less risky in contracting the virus, easier, efficient, less time consuming and physical efforts, less hustle in parking, etc. Those who cannot shop online due to some reasons, they go for shopping in person taking some precautions and observing the health measures. However, it has generally been observed that the shopping trips have become distanced in frequency and people generally spend less time on each shopping trip comparing to the pre-corona era. Although some shopping centers and outlets have the facilities of online shopping, most of them have now shifted a great deal of their transactions to online shopping to cope with the new situation. This required developing new IT and networking infrastructure as well as new logistics. Besides, in a similar move, many other businesses adopted online transaction methods such as banks, insurance companies, utility and service providers, etc. 
  • Family: Due to lockdown and social distancing, the family institution has gone through enormous changes in terms of establishment, member’s authority and roles, relationships, and the total environment. Numerous people have postponed their wedding and forming new families has declined sharply. Even those who got married during the time of the pandemic were not able to fully follow the wedding customs and tradition particularly the family and friend’s involvement and the scale of the celebration and party. Besides, the family condition has become complicated because working parents and adults are now working from home or temporarily unemployed. Children in all levels of education from nursery to university are also at home sharing with their parents or caregivers the same space and situation. Furthermore, the role of other institutions who used to share with the family the function of socialization of children such as the education and religious institutions have either decayed or slipped because of the lockdown. This situation has forced the family to deal with the new reality. Many families managed to adapt with varying degrees to the new lifestyle by changing their attitudes and habits in sleeping, eating, entertainment, cooperation, sharing and caring, patience and tolerance toward other members, and distance communication with relatives and friends. These types of families have transformed the ordeal and turbulent situation into a favor and bless as they took the opportunity of having more quality time with each other to strengthen their family bonds and allow the members to get to know each other closely. It also helped develop positive feelings, love, respect toward each other, and complete each other’ role to maintain stability and harmony of the family institution during this turmoil. At the individual level, many individuals benefited from their free time to learn new knowledge and skills, complete some personal development tasks and projects as well as have time to reflect on their personality and behavior and may more. In the contrary, some families faced some difficulties in adapting to the new situation and failed to live in peace especially in view of the intense daily friction among the family members in a limited space at home. What worsens the situation is that family members do not know each other’s real attitude and personality do not have enough flexibility and tolerance of each other acts, in addition to the tension, anger, depression, frustration caused by the bad news about deaths and the scale of infection of Coronavirus. Also, the lack of or no entertainment facilities at home, limitation on freedom of movement and access to the outdoor world especially work, study, entertainment, and face-to-face social relations. This condition paved the way to increase incidents of family violence, tension, dispute and the sense of intolerance will grow causing more cases of family break down.

Finally, it is important to note that this world crisis has disclosed to humanity how weak is a human being and how fragile are manmade achievements in health, economic, political, and technological spheres. The global pandemic has revealed to the people in each country as well as to the international community who the good leaders, good governments, effective policies, and the right decisions are. It has also exposed the fragileness of the international relations and the flimsiness of the interagency cooperation. It has also shown the moral deficiency in some cases and contexts such as irresponsibility, lack of transparency and truthfulness, selfishness, racism and injustice, and inequalities in many aspects of the response to the plague. 

People, societies, and the world after corona will be very different from before it. Health systems and habits, social relationships, economic and political behavior, and international relations will certainly be reconstructed. The relationship between the people and the state will change, the future of some governments, political leaders and regimes will be jeopardized. The regional unions and political entities, international organizations and institutions will be remodeled based on new values and principles. The international community will be aware of the great importance of sound health and recognize the value of investing in health and similar projects such as education and social welfare instead of allocating a huge budget for military equipment and warfare projects. In the Islamic tradition, this pandemic and its grave consequences on all segments of life could be viewed as a test. It has been stated in the Qur’an that Allah Almighty tests people with different things: “We will certainly test you with some fear and hunger, and some loss of possessions and lives and crops. But give good news to the steadfast.” (Qur’an, 2:155) I hope that the humanity passes this test with fewer causalities, becomes merciful and prosperous in all areas of life, make moral values paramount, returns to the Creator and make this universe a good place to live in.

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* A former Assistant Professor of Sociology and Islamic Studies at the IIU Malaysia and currently Research Coordinator at CILE, CIS, in Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar.

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