Wallflower Society, Conservative Gender Roles and No More One-Night Stands: What will social life post-corona look like?
Epidemics always have a dramatic impact on history, killing millions but bringing about revolutionary leaps in human development. They pushed humanity to adopt hygiene and sanitation to create vaccines and antibiotics, and COVID-19 is no exception. Many scientists are convinced the pandemic is likely to trigger a cultural and psychological revolution. So, how will our lifestyle changes once corona is out
We will all turn into wallflowers
We tend to think of the immune system as the physiological reaction of the body to different pathogens. However, it turns out that it’s not that simple. Apart from T-cells and antibodies, there is a so-called behavioural immune system that changes our behaviour to reduce the risk of infection. Everything we do to protect ourselves and others from the new coronavirus, like washing hands or covering up a sneeze, make up a part of the system.
The behavioural immune system
The behavioural immune system plays an enormous role in the development of human culture across the world. It is this type of immunity that underlies the principle of “friend or foe” identification. The human brain perceives a “foe” as someone unknown and unpredictable, thus potentially dangerous. Furthermore, evolutionary psychologists suggest that one of the reasons why we have developed xenophobic and even racist ideologies is our desire to minimise contact with foreign pathogens that may be carried by people of a different race.
The effects of SARS-CoV-2 on our behaviour have not been studied yet, but it seems like the virus might be tricking our behavioural immune system. Like many viruses, corona is most infectious during the incubation period, that is a few days before the onset of symptoms. Usually, when our body gets infected with any other virus, the immune system does its best to warn our brain about that quickly. So, when infected, for example, with influenza, we tend to feel less active even before the onset of characteristic symptoms like sore throat or fever. The malaise prevents us from active social interaction and, consequently, from infecting all the people around us.
Given the airborne nature of the infection, the one or two days are enough to infect dozens. Scientists say this might be one of the reasons why the virus has been so successful so far.
Of course, viral activity in the body provokes an immune response, but for now, the human immune system has had little success in warning the host about the infection. So, there is a constant battle between the virus and the immune system with the former advocating greater sociability and the latter trying to convince our body to feel sick and reduce activity. As a result, the infected person may suffer mood swings presenting with periods of high activity and depression. If depression prevails, the person seeks to avoid social contacts most of the time.
We tend to avoid social contacts when ill, and things get back to normal as soon as we recover. But since the COVID-19 pandemic is a deadly threat, scientists believe that our behavioural immune system may do its best to adapt. In other words, it will push us to avoid social contacts and subconsciously perceive other people as dangerous “foes” potentially carrying a deadly infection. From the immune system’s point of view, this seems to be the only way to prevent a potential spread of some other dangerous virus in the future.
Disgust as a new social norm
A new paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences suggests that in the post-corona world, there will be much less social interaction. What is more, disgust will become a social norm and will guide us in our everyday lives.
Disgust is one of the mechanisms of the behavioural immune system that protects us from engaging in potentially dangerous activities. This feeling helps us detect spoiled foods and avoid sexual contacts with close relatives.
Though we used to be more tolerant concerning mild respiratory infections, COVID-19 is already making a change. Until recently, no one was embarrassed by a light cough, a handkerchief in hand, or by a colleague complaining about a mild fever. With the onset of the pandemic, we have started to pay more attention to those details. A recent study by Carolyn Hodges-Simeon and Jessica Hlay, anthropologists from Boston University, suggests that since the outbreak of the pandemic people have become reluctant to share water bottles, money and clothes. There has been a 20% rise in the number of people who feel the need to wash their hands after a handshake – seems like people find this necessary ritual much more disgusting than it was just a year ago. Let alone their reaction to coughing or sneezing in public places.
According to Hodges-Simeon and Hlay, it’s not just about coughs and body contact but a rise in the general level of disgust. People seem to have been much more disgusted, even when it comes to things unrelated to the transmission of respiratory infections.
It seems like disgust in itself isn’t a negative emotion as long as it drives positive behaviour. But for the feeling of disgust, we would not wash our hands and would be eating rotten meat. At the same time, psychological studies suggest that the proliferation of disgust can have a profound influence on people’s attitudes. In an experiment led by Jason Faulkner, a group of people was shown pictures of filthy kitchen sponges and told about the pathogens those sponges could spread. In contrast, another group watched pictures of accidents in everyday life. When the researchers measured the attitudes of the two groups towards immigrants, the group who had been pushed to think about pathogens and disease tended to have more negative attitudes towards unfamiliar immigrant groups. Thus, it might be supposed that growing disgust can make the “friend – foe” division more evident. As a result, people might become less tolerant concerning unfamiliar cultures and sub-cultures, which might lead to a rise in xenophobic views.
So, suppose disgust becomes a part of the post-corona cultural revolution. In that case, governments will have to develop particular disgust policies, to make good use of the collective behavioural immunity and mitigate its possible adverse effects. After all, the outbreak of some new deadly virus might occur, and we will again need disgust to push us to wear masks and stay home.
No more one-night stands
It’s no surprise that the growing collective disgust has changed attitudes towards sex. Scientists say that with the pandemic underway, overnight sex is likely to come to nought. With our brain in the constant state of alarm, we tend to see every new sexual partner as a potential carrier of a deadly infection that condoms can’t stop. Thus, any short-lived relationship with a dubious partner becomes dangerous. We begin to consider each possible partner in terms of how suitable he or she is for a long-term relationship and how safe and reliable this relationship will be.
Carolyn Hodges-Simeon and Jessica Hlay’s study shows that momentary sexual desires have taken a tumble – people are having less casual sex and tend to have lower sexual desire. “It’s really all about trade-offs”, says Hlay. “People trading off sexual behaviours to preserve their own health.” And again, it’s not only about overnight sex. The lockdown had seen a general decline in sexual desire and the quality of sexual life.
Given that Pornhub traffic skyrocketed in March 2020, it looks like a possible scenario. As for the general decline in sexual activities, optimists expand that with the pandemic overcome and stress-levels lowered, sex will get back to normal. But there is also a more pessimistic view. Surveys show the decline in sexual activity started long before 2020, and the pandemic just made the trend more visible. Psychologist Jean Twenge says the pandemic will be “the biggest cultural event since World War II” and further degradation of sexual life might be one of its dramatic consequences.
Reversed gender roles
We do try to be cheerful about all the social consequences of the pandemic, saying William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work amid terrific plague epidemics. Yet there remains an obvious response: neither of them had any childcare responsibilities. With schools shut down and children locked at home, families had to face a new challenge. Since spring 2020, women have lost more jobs than men. It was partly because more women than men are employed in the hospitality and service industries that temporarily lost customers.
The distribution of gender roles shifted to the conservative side, where the woman is economically dependent, and the man is the “breadwinner”.
A report by McKinsey Global Institute blamed this on gender inequalities. The authors of the report say lack of empowerment and the still existing gender stereotypes make women’s jobs and lives more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sociologists say gender inequalities and return to conservative gender roles might not be the only issue affected by COVID-19. The pandemic might also lead to a decrease in the tolerance of a whole range of matters: premarital and extramarital relations, legal abortion, the rights of LGBT minorities, racial differences. So, it will be up to governments and civil society organisations to guide people and ensure the world is still moving towards equality and tolerance.
The world will be even more digitised
Despite the sometimes devastating consequences, new threats and challenges have always pushed humanity to move forward. Past epidemics stimulated the development of medicine and science in general.
Today we are witnessing another evolutionary leap. COVID-19 has boosted healthcare-related industries, including protection equipment and test kit production. Healthcare officials have had to reorganise the whole system of medical service provision to adapt it to an entirely new situation with the growing number of patients in need of special care. Anti-corona vaccine development is underway in different countries. According to a UN report on education, about 80-85% of students in developed countries were quickly provided with an opportunity for distance learning, which is still challenging and is bound to prompt technological advances. () And new approaches to distant and hybrid learning are being developed and perfected. Contactless technologies are growing more popular and providing a priceless opportunity for start-ups to gain a niche on the market and bring innovations into different parts of the world. Technological advancement might, in its turn, entail a cultural revolution, caused by the prevalence of online communication and rejection of close contacts.
All in all, though we may argue about whether the post-corona world will be better or worse, it will likely be different.