Sociology of Coronavirus

Rajendra Kshetri
A phrase doing the round in social media following the Corona Virus outbreak in the world is “social distancing”, as a precautionary measure.
But What is ‘social distance’ or for that matter social distancing? This CoVid-19 Pandemic is where Sociology comes in the picture rather handy. The question takes me back to my masters days in Bombay in the early eighties when I laid my hands on (reading) the Chicago School of urban Sociology.
The term ‘social distance’ was introduced in the social science lexicon in the early twenties by two American sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess of the famed Chicago School of urban Sociology. It was meant to describe ‘aloofness and unapproachability’ specially between members of different social strata. It was however Emory Bogardus, another American sociologist, who popularised the term in the early thirties with his formulation of ‘Bogardus scale’ –a scale designed to permit the extent of tolerance or intolerance between social groups.
Social distance/social distancing are known to have been formally institutionalised in some/select extreme system of social stratification such as Apartheid and Caste. Informally they exist in almost all Societies in one form/way or the other.
The conceptualisation of the term was used or meant to use to better understand the level/extent of discrimination and exclusiveness that existed in a given social system. That is what the three American sociologists must have in mind when the term was introduced/popularised. As is wont, the term remain confined only in the academic world, mostly referred by students of social sciences. Never in their wildest imagination may have crossed in mind that the term will one day gain international currency and become a Popular Parlance.
The Coronavirus outbreak worldwide has now brought the term ‘Social distance/social distancing’ into limelight. From Presidents to Prime Ministers to Chief Ministers to Medical Doctors to Health experts to policy makers to Concerned Citizens, it is on the lips of everyone.
Of all the precautionary preventive measures floated/suggested to combat the CoVid-19 Pandemic, ‘Social Distancing’ is the one that is gaining ground. It certainly captures people’s attention to pay heed with all seriousness. Keep/maintain/practise social distancing is the ‘mantra’ doing the round the world over.
Interestingly enough and it may sound unconnected, this worldwide talk and advisory notes on keeping ‘aloofness’ and ‘social distancing’ reminds me of the one and only Greta Garbo- the Hollywood iconic legend of the black and white era. Garbo’s most quoted phrase ‘Leave me alone. I want to be left alone’ was the talk of the world in the fifties and the sixties. It was one such phenomenal phrase that captured the imagination of the rebellious youth of the sixties. A craze perhaps at par with the ‘Beatle mania’. Did the Swedish-American actress who had social anxiety and a fear of crowd’s have some inexplicable inkling that the world will one day come into a pass when being ‘alone’ or ‘left alone’ may serve some social purpose? Just wondering. Robert De Niro’s classic scene of “You talking to me” in the Oscar nominated film “Taxi Driver” comes into mind.
Never in the history of mankind has a virus threatens the survival of homo sapiens as the noval coronavirus did/does. It is more lethal and terrifying than the first and the second world wars. Cities after cities, towns after towns and provinces after provinces have been locked down as preventive measures.
CoronaVirus has gone viral. There is no immediate sign yet that this will stop. No vaccine has been developed so far.
Is ‘aloofness’, staying put at home, not mixing up with crowds the key to combat CoVid-19 then?
Is ‘social distancing’ the antidote to CoronaVirus? Yes, it could be to a considerable extent. Keep distance from the crowd, implement social distancing (along with practising other government/WHO advisories). ‘Social Animal’ that we are, the frightening scenario that unfolds before our eyes in the wake of CoronaVirus outbreak demands that we got to be ‘unsocial’ (for a finite period at least) to combat this dreaded disease. At the same time let us not forget to show solidarity to fellow humans, coping up with the virus elsewhere in the country/world. Express our feelings, Concern for the survival of (wo) mankind.
The worldwide outbreak of CoronaVirus has reminded us once again the prophetic message of the seventieth century metaphysical poet John Donne :
“No man is an island/Any man’s death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind/And therefore never send to know for/Whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee”.
*The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, Manipur University, Imphal. Author of ‘The Emergence of Meetei Nationalism’; ‘District Council’s in Manipur: Formation and Functioning’; “Sociology: Perception and Conception”, his latest book “Cry of A Dying River” published by AABS publishing House, Kolkata is available at Amazon.