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A Counterbalance of Regulations and Social Interactions

Illustration of Prof. Dr. Jan Paul Heisig
Prof. Dr. Jan Paul Heisig | Illustration (Ausschnitt): © Nik Neves

While its long-term impacts of the pandemic remain difficult to predict, sociologist Jan Paul Heisig discusses how COVID-19 has spotlighted previously unnoticed issues in German society, how it has changed social interactions, and how these changes interact with preexisting social inequalities.

By Prof. Dr. Jan Paul Heisig

Deep into the second year of the pandemic, its long-term impacts remain difficult to predict, but it sure has taught us a lot about our lives and the societies we live in. The sociologist Harold Garfinkel is famous for promoting the method of “breaching experiments”, of revealing deeply entrenched social norms and assumptions through their deliberate violation and transgression. In some sense, the pandemic resembles a large-scale breaching experiment that has cast a spotlight on numerous issues that went unnoticed or were taken for granted in pre-pandemic times, and in one way or another, many of these revolve around questions of proximity and distance. 
The pandemic has made social interactions involving physical proximity a major source of health risk, first of all to the individual but also in the sense of a public health risk for society at large. Interactions involving proximity come in many flavours: some of them such as being close to family and friends are essential for human well-being, others such as random, ephemeral encounters on public transport we can more easily do without.

Who Can Leep Their Distance and Who Can’t?

The new risks associated with physical proximity have made the ability to avoid the latter kind of interactions a kind of privilege, and as in many other cases, this privilege has to a considerable extent been one of the well-off. At one extreme, we have the rich who, in Germany and worldwide, fled the large cities – places that lost much of their attractiveness overnight – and waited out the more serious episodes of the pandemic in their second or third homes. At the other extremes hand, we have cashiers, care workers, bus drivers whose jobs require them to interact with dozens or even hundreds of people every single day. Not all “essential” workers in high-risk occupations are low-paid – think of doctors, for example – but a good majority are.

These differences in people’s ability to avoid risky encounters are one crucial way in which the pandemic has exacerbated and at the same time highlighted the social and health-related inequalities that continue to prevail even in the richest countries on the planet. Much higher rates of infection, severe illness, and death among low-income populations are the most obvious consequences of these inequalities. This is illustrated by age-standardised district-level death rates at the height the second wave in December 2020 and January 2021: The least deprived German districts recorded approximately 45 deaths per 100,000 for men and 29 deaths per 100,000 for women during that period, while the most deprived districts recorded roughly 77 deaths per 100,000. for men and 43 deaths per 100,000 for women.

Such differences in severe illness and death are the most dramatic consequences of the aforementioned social inequalities—but it does not stop there. The (perceived) risk of being infected and of infecting others can change the very experience of social interactions as well: Who has the privilege of not having to feel at risk when meeting with friends because they all work remotely? Who can afford to self-quarantine for several days before seeing their parents or grandparents? 

Unprecedented Regulation of Social Contacts

The individual and collective risks emerging from interactions involving physical proximity also mean that they have been regulated to an extent that was previously unknown in liberal democracies. Which types of interactions are allowed to take place, and subject to which requirements and constraints? In Germany, particularly among the liberal left, there seems to be a widespread perception that far-reaching restrictions were necessary, and to some extent remain so, but that they were not well-balanced. Many appear to think that the regulation of schools went too far - and also that too little was done when it comes to softening the impact of school closings on students and their families. Regulation of companies and employers, by contrast, is widely perceived to have been insufficient and simply to have come too late. Indeed, it was only in late January 2021, several months into the second wave, that employers were required by law to enable remote work whenever possible. The first nation-wide school closings, had been enacted more than 10 months earlier, at the very beginning of the first wave in March 2020.

Regulation of private contacts in Germany for most of the pandemic was defined in seemingly neutral terms of the number of persons and different households permitted to meet. No explicit difference was made between unrelated individuals and those related by blood or through legal ties such as marriage and adoption. But not only have there been a few exceptions to this rule, the most noteworthy one for the 2020 Christmas holidays when relatives were allowed to meet in larger groups than unrelated individuals; even rules that did not explicitly differentiate by people’s relatedness appear to have been experienced very differently by different groups of people. Children, adolescents, and young adults seem to have been disproportionately affected, with several data sources indicating that general feelings of loneliness and mental health problems rose particularly sharply among them. Women, people with pre-existing mental health conditions, and sexual minorities also seem to have experienced the lockdowns as particularly disruptive, although better data and more robust evidence are urgently needed, particularly on the situation of sexual minorities.

Lessons for the Future?

What lessons will (or should) we take away from the pandemic experience? Too many to fit into a few hundred words of text, that is for sure. On a general level, the pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we remain, despite all technological advances and all the wealth that countries such as Germany have accumulated. For Germans, this lesson was reinforced in the summer of 2021 when heavy rainfall and devastating floods hit parts of the country. One would hope that a lasting effect of these experiences is to instill greater modesty, caution and farsightedness in dealing with the challenges that await us, most importantly climate change.

Returning to the theme of proximity and distance, we have learned how dispensable proximity and how indispensable it is at the same time. We have learned that it is possible to stay connected online, that we can talk to colleagues all over the world, even celebrate birthdays with friends using video chats. But we have also realised that something gets lost when interaction moves online: the kinds of informal, unstandardised interactions that happen during coffee breaks, for example. And we may have learned that the distinction between significant and meaningless encounters made above is misleading. The regulated and planned interaction that has dominated our social lives over the past two years tends to bring us together with people who are very similar to ourselves. But increasingly diverse, unequal, and polarised societies need interaction that cuts across social circles. And of course many significant relationships have started with what at the time seemed like one of the random, ephemeral encounters we have had so many fewer of during the pandemic.