Western Wall plaza cordoned off for small prayer groups
Western Wall plaza cordoned off for small prayer groupsFlash 90

Who would have thought last Purim that, after a year of cruel struggle, twenty first century Western society, the most advanced technological society ever, is still losing its war of attrition with the covid virus.

But it seems that twenty first century Western civilization will have to cope with serious, viral epidemics for a very long time. This article argues that there is something in the social fabric of the ‘global village’ that Western society that has developed over the last thirty years which makes it an inevitable fertile, ‘breeding ground’ for viral epidemics.

And like in a Greek tragedy, it is probably the virtues of twenty first Western society that make defeating viral epidemics very difficult

This is a pessimistic article – this is an optimistic article

This is a pessimistic article because it argues that significant elements of the ‘normality’ we have so much enjoyed will not return. In many public spaces and occasions we will have to continue wear masks. And just as hospitals have developed departments of oncology (cancer treatment) over the last forty years, hospitals will now develop departments dedicated to treating victims of epidemic viruses.

This is an optimistic article because I am convinced that Western society will successfully restructure itself, probably by ‘downsizing’ key frameworks of social interactions, and will successfully develop advanced methods of medical detection and treatment. In the same vein, we have not eradicated the HIV virus, but we have learned how to control and treat it.

Clarification: This article is an article of professional sociological speculation. It is based on knowledge but not on scientific facts. Its purpose is to ask challenging questions, initiate debate, and point out probable problems and possible solutions. I believe that its basic arguments will hold certain validity in the future.

What is unique about twenty first Western society? How is this pan epidemic different?

First, let us digest a very obvious, but completely ignored, fact, that after twenty years (actually since the fall of communism in 1990) the twenty first century is turning out to be extremely different than the twentieth century. The latter was one long military conflict ( from 1913 -1990) between various European powers and ideologies (including America) at the cost of close to 150 million deaths. In contrast, in the twenty first century (so far) there have been no major military conflicts between world powers.

Why ? Because there has been a hundred fold increase in business, recreation and tourist done on a world wide basis since the mid twentieth century. Simply stated Western society has been too busy ‘partying, making money and having a good time’ on a global scale to waste lives, ideas and material affluence on ideological military conflicts.

There is a cataclysmic conflict between ‘global village social proximity’ and the dire need for governmental regulated social distancing in order to control viral epidemics.
For example, in the twentieth century North Vietnam ‘wasted’ a million lives defending communism against America. In the twenty first century it has become a state capitalist country selling inexpensive manufactured goods to America.

The growth in global business, recreation and tourist social interactions has also greatly increased social interactions of social proximity in crowded places

But this tremendous increase in global commercial, recreational social interactions over the last thirty years has come with a now dangerous price tag. It has at the same time also tremendously increased global social proximity in crowded places. By ‘social proximity’ I mean informal (primarily commercial and recreational) social interactions in crowded public places with people of very varied cultural backgrounds

The last year has unequivocally shown us that defeating viral epidemics, preventing contagious infection, necessitates promoting ‘social distancing’ at the expense of ‘social proximity’ in crowded public places.

Thus the creation of the global village of business, recreation and tourism by greatly increasing global social proximity has at the same time greatly increased the likelihood of viral epidemic.

Given this direct connection between the growth of the ‘global village’ and the growth of crowded social proximity on a worldwide basis, we can probably say that this covid epidemic was a disaster waiting to happen. Retrospectively, it was not a question of ‘if’, but was only a question of ‘when’.

More specifically what are the chief characteristics the increased social proximity of the global village?

The past: our social interactions of social proximity primarily occurred in the framework of familiar multi generational families, neighborhoods and communal institutions

Up until fifty-sixty years ago the vast majority of the globe lived in rural communities, or in stable ‘ethnically homogenous, often multi-generational’ neighborhoods. Almost all of their ongoing social interactions and norms were actualized in this informal, but rigid, social community. Appropriate boundaries of ‘social distancing’ were ‘built into’ stable patterns of community relations, and were self regulated by conformity to community social norms.

In contrast, our present twenty first century with its bourgeoning of ‘global village social proximity’, its social interactions are characterized by the following trends:

One- The world is rapidly moving into densely populated urban areas, with people forgoing the more shared intimate, community life of a more communal society in order to obtain increased opportunities for jobs, education, recreation, culture and social advancement. The statistics are that in 1970 1.5 billion people lived in urban areas, 1990 2.2 billion, and in 2020 4.5 billion, a four fold increase in fifty years .

Such urbanization, however, comes with a heavy price tag. It has created an increasing number of people who suffer from serious bouts of alienation, depression and social loneliness,

Two- tourism also presents a similar picture of exponential growth; in 1970 there were 180 million international tourists, in 1990, there were 400 million, and in 2020 1.5 billion international tourists, more than a tenfold increase. We find a similar dramatic, unprecedented increase in international commerce.

Three- in 1990 the social media was not yet born. Now we spend tens of hours each week on an international based social media. The international dimension of the social media has been a powerful engine for creating international social proximity. It makes the international ‘global village’ seem real, and ‘just around the corner’ and thus enticing us to visit.

Four- a main characteristic of ‘global village party of social proximity’ is its superficial, transient materialism. The best example is Dubai. Dubai is ‘artificial’ Disney Land world of Western materialism planted artificially in a desert. Another example of shallow global village commercialism is the “Ten day coast to coast See America’ tourism where more time is spent on the bus than on placing one’s feet on American soil.

Five- Finally ‘global village social proximity’ is characterized by an atmosphere of libertarianism. Now one can experiment with one’s self identities by surfing on the web or by touring the global village. The global village offers unprecedented opportunities for escaping traditional norms and ‘shopping, putting on and taking off’ self identities in the Global Mall of Life Styles

Thus is created a cataclysmic conflict between ‘global village social proximity’ and the dire need for governmental regulated social distancing in order to control viral epidemics

This year has taught us that in addition to vaccines, the only way that society can eliminate the covid virus is by strategic, government regulated ‘social distancing”. Such ‘social distancing’ requires tremendous self discipline from the individual citizen, and unprecedented self withdrawal from significant sources (both of people and activities) of much needed pleasure and emotional and intimate support. In order to achieve and enforce an effective ‘social distancing’ (that often runs counter to the basic needs of human nature) democratic governments have been compelled to enforce unprecedented intervention and authority over our personal lives.

.Let us now list the points of conflict between the demands for governmental regulated ‘social distancing’ and the global village’s culture of ‘recreational/commercial social proximity.

The conflict over the transmission of the virus: The Spanish flu of 1918 had to ‘hitch hike’ and take a slow steam ship to arrive at ports all over the world. Covid has arrived via the jet plane and on the backs of over a billion tourists. The worst danger is that given this rapidity of transmission the next epidemic virus will be at our doorstep before we can turn our heads around to keep it out. The global urbanization of work, recreation and commerce has obviously acted as a ‘steroid’ for the transmission of the virus. Control over viral transmission will require restricting the parameters and the density of the global village.

The conflict over vaccinations: I estimate that in the best case scenario only 70% of the population of the Western world will agree to be vaccinated, and even a lesser percentage in the rest of the globe (other than totalitarian countries like China). The public demand for vaccination clashes head on with the ingrained libertarianism (‘Only I will tell myself what to do with my body’) of the social culture of proximity. Seventy percent vaccination is likely not enough to establish ‘herd immunity’ (if such thing really exists). The impossibility of achieving even 90% vaccination in a democratic society means that epidemic viruses will remain a stable feature of our society.

The conflict over commercial-recreational, pleasure experiences : Much of the twentieth first century-global economy is based on the building blocks of providing/selling emotional-sensual-intellectual pleasures. It is simply no fun going to a shopping mall, sitting in a restaurant, movie theater, sitting in a bar, visiting a museum, cheering on your team at sports event if you are not doing it as part of a significant group of people. And losing some of our ‘self restraint’ makes the pleasures of the moment all the more rewarding.

And obviously the covid virus is just too happy to see us out there and enjoying ourselves in a crowed social setting. His ‘pleasure’ will be in spoiling the party. Recreational, business and commercial settings will have to downsize and become more restricted in order to lessen the chance of the covid virus spoiling the party.

The conflict over multi cultural social settings: Every social culture has differing norms to define what constitutes the correct boundaries of social intimacy and distance. In the casual, transient, anonymous interfaces of commercial/recreational social proximity no one really knows the appropriate boundaries of the other culture. We will need in the future outside governmental regulation to mange social distancing in anonymous, multi culture public settings. Again, the covid virus puts us in the hands of a highly regulatory, non libertarian governmental grip.

Now for the good, optimistic news: we can successfully downsize and restructure global social proximity so that we can both responsibly fight viral epidemics and still enjoy many global village social proximity pleasures

After a year of fairly tortuous trial and error we are on the up swing of a positive learning curve. Our methods for combating the various viral epidemics that I suspect ‘will be coming our way’ for a long time will include

One, innovative, advanced medical treatments for treating those afflicted with the virus, and thus significantly reducing morbidity. This year has already produced certain FDA approved treatments.

Two, all tourist, recreational and even business activities will be significantly downsized, occurring in smaller numbers , in smaller settings, with increased physical social distancing, and probably be restricted to vaccinated individuals. Yes you will have to be vaccinated to eat in a third empty restaurant, to attend a half empty movie theatre, to attend a half empty sports arena, and to fly a two thirds empty plane. People will work a third of the week at home, possibly in staggered days and shifts. Teachers and schools will have to have classes restricted to no more than twenty students, necessitating afternoon hours both in elementary schools and colleges, and skilled, supervised use of distance learning. Masking will probably compulsory in most of these settings.

I realistically fear that these scenarios will be our ‘new normalcy’. Since all of these services and arrangements will result in reduced income (due to restricted participation and area) they will become more expensive and possibly become the privilege of only the half of society.

Three, the trend to urbanization will be slowed , if not reversed, and there will be a new commercial and real estate interest in more rural, less densely populated towns and cities.

Four, and in my opinion the most significant, we will have to do a much greater degree of our socializing in the more primary, familiar settings of the nuclear family, multigenerational extended family, neighborhoods and informal community social groups. Religious organizations will become more important. Community social activities like the legendary ‘bowling leagues’ will be revived. Singlehood , particularly urban singlehood, will become more painful and depressing.

The sociological factor that will drive a ‘return to socializing in more familiar, family and neighborhood settings’ will be that in such settings, knowing intimately the individuals and social norms with whom we are encountering, we can be more relaxed, private, natural ,supportive and experimental in the social distancing that will still be necessary because of on going viral epidemics. The home, family and neighborhood will be a place where the Big Brother of externally regulated social distancing will be significantly less present, and thus be a much more natural, supportive, flexible setting for our social interactions.

Summary; the twenty first century’s ‘ non-stop party of global village, social proximity’ will ‘continue’ but in a downsized, more restrictive mode because viral epidemics will be with us for most of the century

The twenty first century finds itself in a horrible dilemma. On one hand a large degree of urbanization and international commerce is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the world wide economy and a reasonable degree of affluence. But it seems that such urbanization and international commerce will inevitably bring with ongoing viral epidemics.

If international military conflicts were the foremost dilemma of the twentieth century, then learning to live with ongoing viral epidemics will be the defining dilemma of the twenty first century. We will have to learn how to reconcile –find a middle way- between maintaining necessary global social interactions of proximity with governmental restriction maintaining the social distancing necessary for combating the deadly spread of viral epidemics.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.