The start of the vaccinations against COVID-19 brought a collective sigh of relief and hopes that return to pre-pandemic normalcy is near. However, we should approach 2021 with cautious optimism, as it will mostly be a year at the crossroads. The reason – the raging pandemic exposed and exacerbated acute social problems and vulnerabilities, lying dormant under the surface for years, if not decades. It also created new ones.
The coming together of scientists and researchers, policy-makers and politicians, civil society and media for finding solutions and answers is now needed more than ever. Below, we try to highlight this by discussing how COVID-19 is threatening the social fabric and individual well-being everywhere.
In 2020, the UN World Food Program received the Nobel Peace Prize. However, in the next few years, it must work hard to live up to the expectations of governments and peoples in developing countries. There, the ongoing pandemic led to massive job loss and pushed millions below the poverty line and towards even greater food insecurity. According to observers, many regions in the world face impending food shortages and even hunger. The situation is made direr by crumbling health systems and lack of access to vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 and other diseases.
Around the world, many migrant workers have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, often without compensation or unemployment benefits. Some of them are again on the move – forced to return home or seek new destinations, hoping to find sustenance. The internally displaced and those seeking refuge are especially at risk, not least because of stigmatization amidst host societies. Restrictions on mobility might result in increased migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings and human rights violations. Tools for forecasting migration flows and trends might become a much-needed way to improve states’ ability to manage migration and decrease tensions between migrants and host societies.
COVID-19 brought to light hardships faced by minority groups globally, even in the most developed countries. In the past year, research has shown that people from ethnic and religious minorities, often belonging to the lower economic and social strata, have suffered and died disproportionately due to the pandemic. In a way, the spread of COVID-19 has also created new minorities – in the wake of the vaccine rollout, many wonder whether introducing documents certifying inoculation will not create a new cleavage, separating those who can work, communicate, and travel more or less freely and those who, for various reasons, have had no access to vaccination.
The rise of domestic violence and violence against women in 2020 has often been referred to as the silent or hidden pandemic, unfolding alongside the COVID-19 one. Lockdowns around the world forced many women into an environment of abuse, with little opportunity for reporting and receiving adequate care, protection, and assistance. According to many analysts and experts, the pandemic is swiftly unwinding decades of small steps towards gender equality as women are losing jobs and being welded back into gendered roles considered “traditional”, such as housewives and caregivers.
COVID-19 is emphasizing existing inequalities and generating new ones. Huge chunks of societies are now feeling disempowered, disenfranchised, discriminated against and unrepresented – minorities, migrants, women, the poor, the jobless, those with no access to healthcare and education, even the young who see a very bleak future ahead. Again, those lacking access to vaccines, adequate treatment and modern medicines are already clustering into a new grim group themselves. It is often among these groups where the opinion that democracy has run its course takes hold the most.
If troubling phenomena and risks like these are not addressed and mitigated, the imminent result will be polarization, even greater than the one we are currently witnessing. Recently, the historian Timothy Snyder discussed the dangerous potency of big lies – lies that are so massive and widespread they create an alternative reality for those who believe in them. Polarization can and in fact is already creating preconditions for political and social violence, internal and external conflicts and human rights violations.
All this comes to show that problems thought to be solved are reemerging and solutions that seemed to be working now look insufficient. It must be remembered that the normalcy we are struggling to return to was prosperity for some but mere passableness for others. However, although the current state of affairs is gloomy and discouraging, it is not hopeless. Rethinking the way forward and hard decisions are needed. Possible first steps could be improving health, education, and social policies, greater empowerment of groups at risk, and a careful analysis into how and why certain parts of society suffer from multiple vulnerabilities.