COVID-19 as an agent of social change: a multi-country analysis

Faculty member Juan Manuel González discusses the details of his upcoming COVID-19 summer course, COVID-19 as an agent of social change: a multi-country analysis.

Covid-19 is unveiling a number of problems, challenges and concerns that have for a long time remained opaque or even invisible in many societies. The massive scale of the pandemic and the simultaneity of fronts that need to be contained are making evident all kinds of weaknesses, insufficiencies, biases and inadequacies in many of our social arrangements.

The information being collected on the impacts of Covid-19 in different parts of the world are showing effects that for many analysts are not surprising in terms of their distribution. The disease is offering a unique opportunity to highlight many issues that have been object of public debate and concern for years, bringing them to the fore in an urgent, dramatic and overwhelming manner.

The objective of the course is to use the disease as an analytical tool to examine how many aspects of social life have been organized in different countries (that is, looking at systems or models), and how these social arrangements can explain the effects of the disease in different places.

We will select some countries for analysis, and trace what has been happening in each case throughout the pandemic. The idea is to assess how the different outcomes in these countries have been shaped by three types of factors:

1. Models and systems related to: health care, social protection, food production and distribution, labor markets and work arrangements, housing and other social arrangements. That is, looking at existing systems in each country and how they have “performed” throughout the pandemic.

2. Policy responses to the crisis: issuance of rules; design of policies; implementation of strategies. Special attention will be given to the debates within each country around the different responses, the concerns by different stakeholders, the processes that have taken place to enact the responses, the
information used to make the decisions in different cases, the narratives constructed in different places, and possible distributive effects of the responses. We will look at preventive measures (closures, quarantines, and rescue measures (employment benefits, economic bailouts, for example).

3. Governance arrangements, such as: international and national relations and interactions around specific topics (for example, trade agreements, global value chains, migration agreements, among others); territorial organization of the state within different countries (i.e. relations between national and subnational levels – centralized, decentralized, federated); democratic and non-democratic states. A great deal of the responsibility is falling on national states: the capacity of different states to respond and to effectively interact with other actors becomes an important element to analyze.

We will use a number of methodologies and concepts from several disciplinary traditions to guide the three exercises: political economy; political ecology; science, technology and society (STS); Actor Network Theory (ANT); institutional analysis; policy analysis. They will inform the questions we ask in each of the exercises and help organize the interpretations of the information we gather on each case. Special emphasis will be given to distributive effects of the disease and of the policy responses – some concerning examples already appearing in news outlets have to do with religious minorities, ethnic minorities, women and children, immigrants and refugees in different countries, people living in war zones.

We will also compare the analyses resulting from both quantitative and qualitative methods – methods that are aimed at generalizing and modeling (for example epidemiological models, macroeconomic models), and methods aimed at depicting particular effects on particular groups of people (for example case studies, social mapping, ethnographic type methods, participatory appraisals), and discuss how the different methods contribute differently to understanding the social effects of COVID-19.