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The COVID-19 crisis and risk society in the second modernity

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By Carmen Schmidt

The COVID-19 crisis, which began in China, has hit the rest of the world with full force. We are witnessing closed schools and universities, closed shops and museums and empty streets. International tourism and parts of the production has come to a halt. Economists agree that the crisis will have far-reaching effects on the global economy.

From a social science perspective, the question arises as to the social and political impact of the crisis on our societies. In the following, we analyze the current crisis with Ulrich Beck's concept of risk society in the second modernity, published shortly before the 1986 Chernobyl atomic disaster, to uncover some of these implications.

The second modernity refers to the postmodern period, starting after the mid-1970s, when in advanced industrial societies the tertiary sector became the dominant one and the economic and cultural trends of globalization began to transform national economies and create a global market with strong interdependencies and a sharp increase in intercultural contacts, both of which blurred national boundaries. 

One of the main theses within this concept, however, is that of risk production. These risks are man-made and endanger our entire civilization because they do not stop at national borders, such as the nuclear fallout which, in the case of Chernobyl, was able to cross even the "Iron Curtain" between East and West. The virus did not stop at national borders either. Now, WHO has officially classified the current crisis as a pandemic that has spread over a large region and several continents.

In contrast to modernity, in which class differences played an important role, in the risk society all people are equally affected by these risks. According to Beck, private escape routes and compensation possibilities are shrinking, which we are also observing in the current crisis. For example, as we now know, a possible escape from Japan to Europe would not have been a good idea. In the meantime, Europe has closed its borders; air traffic is severely restricted, as is public transport. It is currently virtually impossible to escape the virus from Europe, even if the state of emergency is much easier to endure in a villa with a view than in a cramped rented flat without a balcony.

According to Beck, the assessment of risks is difficult because the discussion is being held almost exclusively in scientific categories and those affected by risks are therefore at the mercy of the experts' judgment, mistakes, and controversies. Risks and their consequences are therefore particularly open to interpretation. This is evident in the current crisis. Questions such as the danger of the virus, the interpretation of the death rate or the question of why the number of deaths in Italy is so high compared to the infection rate can only be answered by experts. The average citizen is dependent on them for his or her assessment. Moreover, misinformation about the extent, origin and various other aspects of the disease thrive.

The role of the media is therefore important. Especially in a crisis, the media should report responsibly on facts and reflect different opinions in order to contribute to the formation of public opinion. However, there is a symbiotic relationship between crises and the media. With the outbreak of a crisis, sales figures increase, and the more sensational the reporting on the crisis, the greater the attention. Such selfish reporting, however, fuels the mood of crisis in the population and leads to hamster purchases. In Japan, for example, face masks were sold out for days. In Germany, toilet paper has disappeared from the shelves, although the government has declared in both cases that there is no shortage at all. On the internet, fake news is spreading at breakneck speed, contributing to further uncertainty among the population. These days, "The Plague" by Albert Camus has become the best-selling book in Europe.

However, the most important aspect of the risk society concerns democracy itself. According to Beck, the risk society is a "disaster society" in which the state of emergency threatens to become the norm. Thus, the prevention and management of disasters can be accompanied by a reorganization of power and responsibility. The political system faces the dilemma of either failing because of the danger or ignoring basic democratic principles through authoritarian action. The risk society tends towards "legitimate totalitarianism" based on the right to "prevent the worst."

During the current crisis we see that all democratic states have taken far-reaching and drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In this respect, the countries of Europe go far beyond Japan and the measures taken there. For example, the freedom of assembly has been abolished and some states, such as Italy and Spain, have even imposed a curfew for weeks and other countries are following suit. Elections, including in associations and societies, have been postponed, which means that fundamental democratic rights have been suspended, albeit with the consent of the citizens. The question is, however, how long the approval of the people will last. Much will, therefore, depend on whether the principle of "necessity and proportionality" is respected, whether the population trusts its political leadership and whether the interests justifying the measures are legitimate.

In all countries, the virus has brought cultural and political life to a standstill, and social contacts are either severely restricted or prohibited. In Japan, cherry blossom parties have been canceled. Nothing is as it once was which is bad enough. But what if climate change soon brings us the next disaster? Will we then get used to such measures? The “responsible citizen”, as Beck imagines him to be, is therefore indispensable to prevent a possible autocratization of our societies. For autocratic regimes, this is, in any case, a good opportunity to suppress possible protests and put public opinion in their place.

Carmen Schmidt is a Professor of Political Sociology and Speaker of the Japan Research Center at the School for Cultural Studies and Social Sciences at Osnabrueck University, Germany, and a specially-appointed professor at Osaka University. 

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4 Comments
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Osaka University is carrying on with classes as usual...

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Osaka University is carrying on with classes as usual...

Considering they are expecting 3,300 corona cases in Osaka at the beginning of April that seems rather irresponsible

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@MG

agreed

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She speaks plainly about things that should concern us all, if basic freedoms are important to us.

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