Onderstaande artikel is door Dr. G.J. Kloens geschreven tijdens zijn quarantaine periode met zijn gezin in Israël. Het artikel is vrij om te delen!
The Positive Impact of COVID-19 on Western Society
Dr. Gershom Kloens, PhD
Otniel, Israel, March, 24 2020
Government officials, experts and the general public in the West have declared COVID-19, a corona virus, as the biggest crisis since World War II. Countries are (partially) locked down, the economy is in crisis and people have to stay home or are in quarantine. Universities and schools are closed. An increasing number of sick people are hospitalized in Intensive Care units. People are worried and afraid. The lives of people in fragile condition, like the elderly or those with health issues, are in acute danger. The impact of COVID-19 throughout the world is huge. Some countries are trying to mask the impact and loss of life.
This article is about the positive impact of the virus for Western Society. We will use The Netherlands, my home country, as an example. The first part is about the impact of the corona crisis and the declarations of the leaders of many countries. The second part is about the pre-corona state of The West. The third, and final, part is about the expected positive impact of the crisis on Western society.
Last week Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave a speech on national television. This was the first time a PM addressed the nation since 1973, the year in which we were coping with the Oil Crisis. A nationwide broadcasted speech by the PM in The Netherlands is a rare phenomenon. In 1973, it was a 100% economic crisis. Gasoline prices were high and interest rates on mortgages were above 13%. I was an 8 year old and I remember the good things about this crisis, like biking on the highway and in the tunnels. Cars were not permitted to drive anymore, so it was time for adventure!
The COVID-19 crisis is another type of crisis. It is a crisis with an impact on all segments of society, on the economic, health, social and psychological levels. People feel unsafe. The future is uncertain. Will I or my beloved ones be infected by the virus? Will I lose my job? Will I manage to do my exams and finish school? Will the healthcare system hold? Will our government take care of us? The core of the speech of PM Rutte was its appeal for trust and social support, especially for the sick and elderly. We have to trust the experts and take care of each other, he said.
The same kinds of speeches are now heard in other countries. The president of France spoke of a war against an invisible enemy. France, like Germany, closed its borders. People all over the EU are instructed to keep a physical distance of 1.5-2 meter. The US and Canada likewise. Keep the trust and keep the distance, Trump stated. PM Netanyahu of Israel stated: “Love is keeping your distance”. Try to support each other, is the overall statement being made.
So, in short, several PM’s or presidents appealed for social trust, support and love. The question that follows is evident: How can you appeal for moral traits in the Western community if there is a severe lack of trust, social bonding and love? The so-called I-Society, its characteristics and lack of morals, is widely described in the social sciences and literature. Experts have called it the Selfie-Culture of the West. Central to this type of culture is a lack of balance between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’. A Selfie-Culture is deficient of a sense of togetherness. It lacks social support and strong social bonds. People are stuck into an egocentric way of living.
This month, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book ‘Morality’ was released (Hodder & Stoughton). It’s about this topic.
Sacks quotes Bill Emmett, who describes the West today as “demoralised, decadent, dysfunctional and declining”. Sacks describes a cultural climate change; the move from ‘We’ to ‘I’, and its consequences for Western society. A Selfie-Culture increases rates of depression, anxiety and drug abuse, loneliness and a lack of happiness. Experts note a mentality of licence (the freedom to do whatever we want) and the rise of hosts of new concepts and ideas in our vocabulary, like autonomy, self-actualisation and self-expression.
In a Selfie based society we use the word ‘rights’ and become reluctant to express guilt, remorse or responsibility. We compete rather than cooperate. Failed relationships, high divorce-rates, increased rates of children in mental care and under stress or suffering burnout characterize our Western society. In my books about love and relationships, I describe modern relationships as ‘Postmodern Consumptive Relationships’ (PCR). These PCR kind of relationships are ‘what’s-in-for-me-relationships’, based on egocentrism, idealism and sex without intimacy. As mental healthcare professionals, we notice that intimate love relationships based on love, trust, authentic intimacy, realism and a strong bond, are losing terrain in Western society. Porn is taking over the intimacy and sexuality of monogamous relationships. Infidelity is a common phenomenon. This Selfie mentality and these consumptive relationships cause lots of pain, sadness and loneliness. It puts a heavy pressure on health funds.
Solid, long term love relationships are at stake in such a low-trust society. Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam called this phenomenon Bowling Alone. It’s a strikingly descriptive term for the western Selfie-Culture. In many areas of Western society people live by themselves, instead of together. In short, it’s the pre-corona state of the West.
Will the appeal of Dutch MP Mark Rutte and those of his colleagues in the EU fall on deaf ears, or can people still tune in to their message? Can we recover from the one-sided focus on the ‘I’ and restore our social capital; the social bonds of mutuality, togetherness and trust? Can we find a healthy balance, a middle sense of harmony between individuality and togetherness? Can a crisis, like COVID-19, generate a wake-up call, or do we have to face this huge crisis ‘bowling alone’?
The answer to this question is not an easy one and depends mainly on the philosophy of life involved. A pessimistic view on life and society will focus on the negative impact of this crisis. It will negate positive outcomes or benefits. Cynicism will dominate the public debate. On the other hand, an optimistic view on life and society will also focus on the positive outcomes. Hope will dominate the public debate.
Based on signs in the Netherlands and other western countries, I tend to hold an optimistic worldview. Sacks stated in his book ‘Morality’:
“There exists, in nature and humanity, an astonishing range of powers to heal what has been harmed and mend what has been broken. The powers are embedded within life itself, with its creativity and capacity for self-renewal.”
This empirical, life experience, basis of hope endorses an optimistic life view. In my humble opinion, it is a realistic life view. Individuals and society can recover and grow after a crisis. In individual clinical psychotherapy we called this ‘posttraumatic growth’.
An increasing amount of evidence on this topic has been published. Furthermore, besides empirical proof, historical experience conforms to a positive life view. On a social level, we can use the inauguration and growth of the State of Israel as an example. It’s one of the greatest social achievements of the last centuries. The recovery of Europe after World War II can also be used as an example. Society has the ability to recover. People can change the course of history by changing their behaviour.
Last week, we noticed signs of mutual compassion and love in the Netherlands. PM Rutte organized the kick-off and the people did the rest. Flowers were given to the healthcare workers in hospitals, a nation-wide round of applause for workers in healthcare (even the King and his family participated), highway-level traffic on the electronic media to maintain contacts with family and friends, economic support by government and banks and creative solutions to create contact with the elderly. An old man living in a retirement house was happily surprised that his son climbed on his mini-van to come closer to the open window to talk to his father. We noticed the same kind of signs in our EU countries. In Italy, for example, one of the worst hit countries, people are trying to encourage each other by singing on their balconies.
The duty to keep a minimum of 1.5 meter distance from others seems to re-vitalize the need for social bonds. People feel the pain of the distance. As an automatic and natural response, there is a huge increase in the longing to attach to, and support, others.
Individuals and society can recover after a crisis. The COVID-19 crisis can be a turning point in Western society. We have to recover from the Selfie-Culture. The science is clear. We need strong social bonds and morality to be healthy, happy and maintain the good values of a free society. Sometimes, we need a crisis to gain insight and change the course of history.
Behavioural change is one of the hardest things in life. It needs lots of perseverance, responsibility and trust. The first signs during the COVID-19 crisis are positive. We noticed a slight shift from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’. The Selfie-Culture is losing terrain. So, this crisis can be an opportunity to create a new and healthier balance between self-care and the care for others. Hillel, an influential Jewish sage, said:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Perhaps Hillel’s teaching has never been more topical than in 2020. People need a healthy balance between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’, based on Hillel’s saying: don’t wait, start now!
COVID-19 is a huge crisis and this can bring the worst for our society, but it can also bring out the best in people. We have to wait to see the final result.
Dr. G.J. Kloens (1965) is a PhD in clinical psychology and psychotherapy, expert on love and relationships and e-Health. He lives in Israel and works in The Netherlands. At this very moment, he and his family live in quarantine.