BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,853, December 21, 2020
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The coronavirus pandemic has created a new kind of culture shock. It has affected essential and highly personal elements of many people’s lives in their own environment. A culture shock of this magnitude has not happened since World War II. When the pandemic ends, societies will be very different from what they were in the pre-coronavirus era.
In recent decades, citizens of Western societies have lived their lives and mapped out their futures more or less in terms of the expectation of a slow progression from the past into the future. Individuals may have experienced events that drastically changed their lives for the worse, for example, a serious illness. But such events mainly influenced personal environments. They had virtually no impact on society at large.
The term “culture shock” was coined in the 1950s to describe the experience of people who found themselves disoriented when they went abroad. Immigrants, for example, arrived in societies with unfamiliar cultures and often found it difficult to adapt. The same could happen to students who have gone abroad to distant universities. Even tourists who have visited a country for a short time might be shocked by the radically different culture of the country.
In certain circumstances, a form of culture shock can affect Westerners while they are in their native environment. This can happen if, for example, asylum seekers from completely different backgrounds are placed in or near their western hometown. Yet the home environment of the local population remains largely the same.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a very different kind of culture shock. It affects essential elements of people’s lives in their own home environment. Often very personal issues are at stake. These include where one can go, who one can meet, where one can work and who can visit one’s home, which may even include a ban on receiving close family members.
A culture shock of this magnitude, affecting large numbers of people at once in various countries, has not occurred in most Western societies since World War II. This conflict has disrupted the lives of many people, and for much longer and to a much greater extent than the coronavirus.
There have been major culture shocks in recent decades in small territories as well. An example of this is the Greek Civil War, which took place right after World War II. Others were the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the imposition of communism on a number of Central and Eastern European countries after World War II, which had a huge impact on these societies. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of its satellite countries from communism created another culture shock.
The culture shock of the coronavirus will have a number of layers that will affect individuals, groups and societies as a whole. There are a considerable number of “new poor”, for example. Many of these people never imagined they were at such a risk. Their reaction to this personal type of culture shock will be heavily influenced by their self-image.
The culture shock for many newly unemployed workers is likely to be significant. The problem is particularly difficult because these people live in societies where unemployment has risen sharply, which makes it much more difficult to find a new job. If companies close factories, the closures will affect not only factory workers, but the many others who provide services to factories and their employees.
People over 50 who find themselves unemployed will find it very difficult to find a new job. Women could be particularly affected, as there are indications that more women than men have lost their jobs during the pandemic. This may be partly explained by the fact that more women than men tend to have jobs that involve contact with others.
Young people entering the labor market will face far greater barriers to employment than before the pandemic. Internships and apprenticeships will be much more difficult to obtain. Young people, many of whom are not used to much hardship, will face more structural societal adversity than previous generations.
All of this means that many people will have to take less desirable jobs if they want to work. In such a context, those who are able to take initiative and be resilient will have great advantages over others.
Some people have suffered from the virus more severely than others. Sequelae such as loss of smell or taste can last a lifetime. There are indications that mental health issues have increased, and professionals may find themselves unable to cope with the increased demand. There are also cases of what might be called long-term disorientation. There is a debate about whether suicides are increasing.
The societal response to those who suffer may be inadequate or even neglectful. In the post-pandemic society, less attention is likely to be paid to the specific problems of individuals. The welfare state will be further weakened. The term “social justice” is unlikely to disappear from public discourse, but operationally it will receive much less attention.
A frequently raised topic is how children will be affected in the long term by the disruption to their normal lives during the pandemic. If World War II is to be our benchmark, we might find that compared to adults, children are more resilient and suffer fewer long-term negative effects from the disruption to their lives caused by the coronavirus.
Not everyone is vulnerable by any means. Little can change for government employees, for example, compared to their life before the pandemic. Maybe their salaries will be frozen. Nevertheless, the societal environment in which these people will live after the pandemic will be different from that which preceded it.
The scale of the problems facing individuals and societies after the end of the pandemic is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict. We can, however, identify general phenomena that will play a role in defining how societies have changed. They can be large enough to represent culture shocks for society as a whole.
The first phenomenon concerns money. During the pandemic, governments have broken generally accepted economic rules regarding budget deficits. Several governments have injected money into their societies in an unsustainable way. They will have to allocate budgetary funds after the pandemic in a much more difficult way than before. The shortage of available money compared to the accumulated demand of all who claim to receive it is serious. This will likely lead to much fiercer fund battles than in the past.
The second phenomenon concerns civil unrest. There have been many protests against the way governments have made decisions about the pandemic. In many countries, there are protests against government measures such as lockdowns and possible forced vaccination. When the pandemic ends, public discontent will likely move in other directions that are not yet predictable.
Another issue is how government attitudes will change as a result of the pandemic. The policies of those in power in the face of the crisis were largely trial and error. This has led to policies that differ significantly from country to country. What states have in common is that their leaders were not elected to deal with this kind of exceptional situation.
Post-pandemic, governments will have to meddle in society more than many can ideologically justify. What will this lead to? Will there be further changes in the socialist government due to the need to provide a financial safety net to many more people than before? Or will we see more attempts at authoritarianism? On the latter, it’s clear that segments of the public won’t let governments off the hook.
Another related issue is trust in authorities. Since governments have not found effective ways to deal with the pandemic, will the public be able to trust them on other issues? How will this lack of confidence express itself? What does this mean for democracy? Is liberal democracy capable of dealing with post-pandemic challenges, many of which will likely require a steady hand?
And what about violence in post-coronavirus society? Given all the new strains on societies, common sense would say that violence is likely to increase. But where and under what circumstances will it break out, and how will it manifest itself?
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center, former Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Steering Committee, and author of The War of a Million Cups. Among the honors he has received is the 2019 International Lion of Judah Award from the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, which honors him as a leading international authority on contemporary anti-Semitism.