Pandemic and civilizational change


The Covid-19 pandemic seems to entail a cultural change on an almost planetary scale.

In the framework of a hyper connected virtual society, apocalyptic images are a common sight during the impositions of quarantine and seclusion to which hundreds of millions of people are forced to comply.

The first consequence of this situation is an abrupt change in the pattern of personal interaction. On a more general level, the sharp drop in touristic activities and passenger transport, has dealt a severe blow to both global and local economies.

The response to this, based on the guidelines of an information society, has been a strong reconversion of many public and private services into digital format (education, training, retail, and various services).

As a whole, these features seem to reconfigure new patterns of sociability, and perhaps a civilizing change. There is speculation about whether crucial geopolitical changes will ensue, or whether pre-existing trends will be accentuated as a consequence of the health emergency.

The "new normal", the end of confinement which, in mid-2020, countries are putting into effect at different rates, aims to conceal the brutal shock on consciences, physical bodies and societies.

There are multiple debates at stake: what is or what could have been the best public management of the health crisis; the social implications of the response to the forced quarantine, which affects everyone and in particular the most socially vulnerable sectors; the value and the limits of personal responsibility in managing the pandemic; the significance of the pandemic for the capitalist economy and what will the day after look like…

However, as contemporaries to the apocalypse of certain cultural forms, we must be self-vigilant regarding the hasty announcement of an Apocalypse Now. In reviewing the history of the 20th century, and in particular the history of international relations, it is concerning that the terrible "Spanish flu" of 1918-1920 is not referred to in some important works, not even as a footnote. It ravaged bodies and souls as the worst pandemic of modernity (in terms of number of victims), but it seems not to have been worth recording [1].

Will the same happen with the Covid-19 pandemic, which could now be registered unilaterally in economic history, as the cause of a catastrophic fall in the world GDP? Perhaps it will also be remembered in the histories of education or civil aviation, as cultural and industrial areas that have been greatly impacted by it.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a type of coronavirus, appears to have originated from an exotic animal market in Wuhan, China, where there could have been an inter-species transmission between animals kept in overcrowded conditions (bats, pangolins), and from them to human beings.

Some have sought to trace the origins of the practice of the wild and exotic animal trade in contemporary China to certain measures taken as a result of famines caused by the Cultural Revolution, an acute food crisis that contributed to China's re-direction towards capitalism.

According to this hypothesis, the expansion and deepening of Chinese capitalism, with new consumer demands, maintained and further exacerbated the trade of wild species, which are kept in poor conditions of captivity.

I have not studied this point sufficiently to affirm it, but if this succession of historical events were true, it would be necessary to somehow pinpoint the origins of the socioeconomic conditions of the pandemic in previous cataclysms, both social and political, and this conceptual input would allow us to foresee the almost certain emergence of future epidemics and pandemics.

Besides its historical background, the characteristics of the virus responsible for the pandemic, apparently obvious and trivial to us, the virus’ threatened contemporaries, are relevant and deserve to be revised:

-A tremendous contagious capacity and the mutation of the virus, which seems to become more lethal in the absence of obstacles.

-A long asymptomatic incubation period, which facilitates the silent spread.

-A "bio-political" character: the virus is not only a natural phenomenon, a chain of genetic material and RNA, but, given the above characteristics, it is also a risk to people's health and a major threat to the correct functioning of health systems, thereby setting in motion a series of bio-political mechanisms.

Its initial uncontrolled appearance made people, as well as health systems, its victims, especially in countries with a high proportion of people over 65, in countries that had not invested accordingly in their health systems, or in countries that did not take rapid containment measures.

It is therefore a virus with notably marked political consequences, which are new and different from those of other pandemics. The "Spanish flu" did not have this characteristic because the Welfare State -whatever sharp differences may exist  today between countries- had not yet been established.

It was Michel Foucault, during a Conference at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in 1974, who coined the concept of biopolitics in the social sciences (after Kjellén, who had used it in an organicist, sense):

“The control of the society over individuals is carried out not only through conscience or ideology, but also though their bodies and with their bodies. For the capitalist society, it is the biopolitical that matters above all, above the biological, the somatic or the physical. The body is a biopolitical entity, and medicine is a biopolitical strategy”.

Today, biopolitical mechanisms seem to involve a dimension of domination, but they also entail a certain emancipatory potential.

From the political point of view, the pandemic has confirmed the relevance of the national State, as well as of the provincial or regional States, in regards to the national society, as a key space for decision making, resource mobilization, and the implementation of concrete actions. In contrast, the pandemic has exposed the absence of global or regional spaces (United Nations, European Union, CELAC, Mercosur) with some exceptions, such as the European Central Bank and the World Health Organization.[2] [3]

Beyond the catalog of the vicissitudes of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems clear that, like any extreme situation, the emergency has created spaces of shared introspection, of new reflections on the meaning of life, its finitude and the value of our cultural productions and constructions.

It also constitutes, especially for institutions of higher education, and for practitioners of symbolic production within art and culture, a remarkable opportunity to thoroughly rethink the world built in the first two decades of the 21st century, and to reveal a new non-anthropocentric humanism that can account for the future.


Enrique Martínez Larrechea is a Ph.D in International Relations and a researcher at the SNI in Uruguay. Former National Director of Education of that country on two occasions, he is currently organizing President of the Instituto Universitario Sudamericano Foundation (IUSUR). www.iusur.edu.uy - iusur@iusur.edu.uy


[1] The misnamed “Spanish Flu”, originated in the United States in 1918 and spread across Europe by the movements of military troops in the context of the World War I, claiming the lives of between 20 and 40 million people.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTcYwnGAZy4

[3] https://www.argentina.gob.ar/argentina-futura - Carreriras, Helena y Malamud, Andrés (2020) Geopolítica del Coronavirus, p.106, in: Grimson, Alejandro, coordinador (2020) El futuro después del COVID-19. Buenos Aires: Argentina Unida




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