Evolving Social Ethics in a Pandemic

You have most likely heard the saying that “knowledge is power”. Knowledge of both the potential good and bad that we as a society may be experiencing during this Covid-19 pandemic, is power. If we choose ignorance, we give up control of collective power over our societal ethics and allow things to take their course. However, when we seek to know, we have the capacity to recognize signs and patterns of behavior and can play an important role in shaping our response to critical situations like the Covid-19 pandemic. With knowledge, we can equip ourselves with resilience and resources to change the direction of societal ethics and guard against the ravages of fear, anxiety and mistrust that reign during a time of a pandemic. It is with this goal that I write this article in keeping with my Flourishing Living blog!

In the following paragraphs, I theorize and discuss six stages of evolvement of societal ethics during a pandemic. The stages are specific to a pandemic. They would be different in any other kind of critical event. An assumed difference between a critical event and a pandemic is that while both can affect a large constituent of a population, a pandemic indiscriminately endangers many more people indirectly and over time. Also, a critical event takes place in a time limited manner and is somewhat conclusive, while a pandemic may be ongoing for a very long time. A critical event may have long lasting effects on the life of people just like a pandemic, but its limited time of occurrence allows for certain responsiveness that can be substantially different from a pandemic.

When a critical event becomes a pandemic, social emotions and hence, social ethics evolve because of the nature of the development of a pandemic. In a pandemic, no one is safe. There is nowhere to hide. No matter one’s ethical background, gender, race, or wealth, everyone faces similar risks in a pandemic, though as we have learned in the last few weeks, the level of exposure for certain populations may be different. The indiscriminate and seemingly, indefinite growing effects of a pandemic demand change in social dynamics. These changes are the focus of this article and are articulated in six sequential stages. As in many aspects of humanity, none of these stages is definitely conclusive and sequential as depicted in a stage model. People are dynamic and can oscillate back and forth between the stages as circumstances change. They are presented here as a framework to help us understand societal behavior during a pandemic.

Stages of societal relationships and ethics in a pandemic.

Stage 1 -Denial: This is the very beginning stage when a critical event occurs. In the Covid-19 pandemic, the time period for this stage were the initial warnings of the corona virus beginning mid-January to about mid-February. People react differently, where some hear it only as news of happenings far from home and most may go on with their lives unaffected. Others belittle the effect of the event on them. Some just follow what everyone else is doing without giving much thought to their actions. For instance, the hoarding of toilet paper exemplified a random societal mob action where many people were simply buying because others were doing so. It psychologically translated to mean that toilet paper would be an important item to have during the pandemic. There was no real rationale for hoarding toilet paper!
Denial is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a human response to an adverse event that helps give us a temporary buffer to what could be too shocking and damaging to take in. The buffer created by denial is necessary to help people absorb traumatic news in palatable doses.

Stage 2 – Shock: As reality of events hit and the buffer created by denial wears off, people move from denial to shock. News, facts, and experiences play a big role in advancing people to this stage. During the Covid-19, as the number of infections and deaths rose, reality sank in and with it, the shock of realizing that we are in the middle of a rising pandemic. Though reality cannot be denied, we may find ourselves slipping back and forth between denial and shock. Some characteristics of this stage include but are not limited to:
• Anger – at anyone who is deemed to have the power to have done something to prevent the pandemic.
• Blame shifting as people try to desperately attempt to control the situation.
• Existential Questions – mainly theological questions in an attempt to find meaning, which if arrived at, help calm human anxiety.

Stage 3 – Benevolence: For many people during this stage, the pandemic is still treated as news of really bad things happening elsewhere. It is not yet home. Distance, as opposed to stage 1’s denial, becomes the buffer that can allow people to be positively proactive in many ways. For instance:
• Some will busy themselves with adaptation to protect their families, friends and community.
• Others will focus on preparing themselves for the worst – ensuring enough food, provisions, keeping connections with loved ones and neighbors, etc.
• People are quick to ask what they can do.
• Religious organizations go out of their way to meet people’s needs and give comfort. They altruistically enhance missions of justice and charity.
• Commercial companies and organizations will lean to language and actions that suggest – “we are in this together.”
• Individuals, organizations and companies give all they can and beam with generosity.
• Rules are relaxed to allow flow of benevolence and grace.
• People watch out for each other and find creative ways to ride the critical events.
The key in this stage is to note that all this generosity is driven by a humane core that wants to step in the gap on behalf of another. Value and compassion for human life in general is high. The outward looking gestures are enabled by the physical distance from real adverse devastation. The ravages of the pandemic are not yet theirs and so they have capacity to look out for those affected.

Because of the sheer strength to do good and the enormous positive impact of this stage, this should be the target stage for any society. It brings the best out of its citizens. Narratives, messaging and acts of benevolence are key to building this stage as an anchor to thrive. If a society can figure, say through religious organizations and other philanthropic organizations, how to stretch and capitalize on this stage as much as possible, the society may build the needed resilience to resist potential evils of stage 4 and stage 5.

Churches and other religious organizations have the greatest window of influence during this stage and must be intentional in stepping in to make a difference in people’s lives and in building hope. The strength of the society is measured by its capacity to capitalize on human goodness that is most prominent during this stage. Yet the nature of the pandemic we experience has been most challenging to allow religious organizations to step in, in tangible long lasting marked ways. The greatest power of Religions has in the past been predicated on human gathering – whether in small groups, in doing missions or in worship. Yet gatherings were the aspects most affected by restrictions posed by the pandemic of Social distancing, need for regular sanitization and dangers of corporate worship. Churches have done a swell job of re-inventing worship and missions to online forums and drive by services, but the lack of gathering is depleting the power of influence that comes from togetherness. Given the importance of the stage of Benevolence for the preservation and anchoring of human goodness, it is imperative that the church does not give up on being the radar that re-directs society to benevolence.

Depending on how long the pandemic goes on, this stage may see signs of anxiety to return to the way things were. People want to resume what had been established as normal life before the pandemic and may even downplay the looming danger to life. They thirst for the familiar, the normative.

Stage 4 – Defensive: – As the sea of devastation rises and hits home, and as people emotions become spent, benevolence begins to wear out in what psychologists refer to as Compassion fatigue. The hyper outward giving response that characterized benevolence stage begins to turn to an inward defensive focus. Some of the characteristics in this stage include:
• Stress and fatigue: those on the frontlines are stressed without much rest or breaks to rejuvenate. In our current situation, this group would mainly be the medical personnel at all levels, as well as political, civil and religious leaders who are inundated by constantly changing policies and making difficult decisions for the masses. Same case with those giving of themselves in other ways like Church pastors who are stretched caring for members and volunteers who continue to organize the ministries of the church.
• Information overload – especially in our digital age where flow and exchange of information, both valid and speculative is instant and constant. People begin to stop paying attention to the finer details on emails, executive orders and instructions.
• Outward poise that characterized benevolence begin to turn to inward focus. The threat of imminent danger escalates fear and anxiety which in turn begets prioritization for the self. While in the former stage people wanted to be helpful to others, the focus now becomes the self and immediate loved ones.
• As anxiety and fear rises, so do people’s shortness of temper with colleagues and family.
• Tendencies of narcissistic protection and defensiveness are common.
• Rules get tightened towards defensiveness.
• Roles are confused as people reconfigure how to live with one another in unprecedented time.
• Weakest links of the family (those most vulnerable like younger children or elderly members, or those who bear the emotional weight of the family), may act up in variety of ways including, substance abuse, depression, acting out, or lashing out in temper, etc.
• Imposed External restrictions can be difficult to navigate and may undermine family and collegial tolerance for each other.
• What was news of loss before, is now a loss of real people that we know or who are close to us or who are in our immediate neighborhoods.
• Threat to the sense of self, to the benevolence of the world and meaningfulness of events is real. Hence, what before was a critical event affecting the nation or world, is now a personal crisis that demands attention to protect the self and those close to us. The hallmark of good will may be lost, even to the best of us.
• People tend to retreat to their trusted social enclaves and begin to “other” those outside of their enclaves. The tendency is towards greater stratification by economic status, color, nationality, etc. Mistrust of the other can quickly become a hallmark for this stage.
• Pandemic’s effects on other sectors like economy, unemployment, scarce commodities may heighten the sense of insecurity. Blame shifting now targets the other and may manifest in increased racism, nationalism and a wave against immigrants.
• Some may take advantage of vulnerability created by the quick adaptations and find fulfillment in this. The rising cyber-attack on Zoom gatherings, is a good example.

Stage # 5 – Survival: This stage is reached as the pandemic climbs to the peak. By this time the imminent threat to all socio-economic sectors and death toll is crippling. Where in all the past stages, societal, political and spiritual infrastructure held the society as a glue, the infrastructure can no longer hold. It disintegrates. There is dire scarcity or inflation of food and essential commodities. People are overwhelmed by death and loss of all kinds. The magnitude of loss of loved ones, jobs, property, revenue, livelihood, etc., leads to survival as the primal instinct. Survival mode leads to people demand scarce goods and commodities by all means.
Characterization of this stage is as follows:
• The culture of “everyone for him/herself and God for us all” takes on.
• Inhumane acts against others for perceived self-survival.
• There is prominence of “othering” of people.
• Animosity especially towards targeted groups of people especially minority groups and others perceived as not belonging, or even against each other is common.

Stage # 6 – Re-adjustment to New Normal. As the pandemic plateaus and begins to fall on a downward curve, people begin to regain some semblance of normality. Unfortunately, the downward curve will never reach what was, before the pandemic. There have been drastic losses of lives, of livelihoods, of businesses, of trust and of relationships. All these lead to mass, unchecked and complicated grief. Once again churches and other religious organizations may be key in helping the society find liturgical expressions of grief so that grief does not become incapsulated. The new normal will bear scars of all these losses plus marked aspects of changed lifestyles. Society will demand new ways of being that protect one another and that prevent a future spread of occurrence/spread of such a pandemic.

While many of these changes may be disconcerting and therefore resisted because they are a change forced by circumstances from what the norm was, there are many that are positive changes. Sectors of the society will have been forced to adapt quickly in creative life-giving ways like never before. For instance, many churches struggled with embracing technology as a way to do worship and discipleship. Yet in a matter of weeks, many churches have had to adapt to technology in order to livestream services and engage in ZOOM meetings to minister to members that are shut in their homes and thereby reach a constituent beyond their regular membership.
Major markers of re- adjustment to New normal stage include but are not limited to:
• Rebuilding of infrastructure
• Rebuilding of civil relationships
• Finding appropriate ways to express communal grief
• Deep self-searching of regret for acts of omission and/or commission.
Organizations that anticipate and prepare for a future that is drastically different than that which they knew, will not only make faster and successful adjustments to the New Normal, but also positively contribute to, and impact its characteristics.

The above graph illustrates that the first three stages discussed are very similar for both a critical event and a pandemic. However, while in a regular critical event the stages can get curbed at stage 3, the fear, lack of hope and ensuing social economic ravages caused by an ongoing pandemic becomes a catalyst to stage 4 and 5, before curbing at a stage 5. By the time society is at stage 5, relationships have been severed, trust is broken, suspicions are heightened such that life can never be the same again. This does not have to be: sheer knowledge and intentional will to do good by members of a society can lengthen and maximize Benevolence stage such that stage 4 and 5 are never fully realized. Also, note that if the Benevolence stage can be maximized, re-adjustment to a new normal is not as shocking and difficult as it could be if society does reach stage 4 and 5. The new normal reached at in this case would be closer to what was and will catalyze readjustment.

It may be worthwhile to note that the stages of societal ethics in a pandemic closely follow the stages of grief as presented by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, in her book Death and Dying , but only up to a point. Hence, the first and second stages of Denial and Shock have the exact same characteristic as Kubler Ross’ first two stages. They however, part way at stage 3 which for Kubler Ross is Bargaining and in a pandemic, it is Benevolence. Yet one can corelate the two by observing that many people will be benevolent as a way of bargaining with God. It may also explain how this stage, if characterized by elements of bargaining, may work as a catalyst to Stage 4 Defensiveness: that is if people arrive at the meaning that their bargaining through benevolence has not worked. Hence, stage four and five are very specific to a pandemic and move away from Kubler Ross’ stages of grief.

It is also notable that each part of the world will undergo these stages very differently depending on how badly hit they are by the pandemic. For instance, New York’s curve will obviously look very different from the mid-west U.S because of how heavily affected and the magnitude of loss experienced in New York in comparison to the mid-west. Both will look very different from areas that are hard hit in developing countries where resources to assist and bail out businesses and people are more scarce. More collective societies whose strength and assets are in their communal core, may have inherent capacity for benevolence and use it to build resilience, while developed countries will use their strength of industrialization. All this to say that this is simply a model framework and that real life cannot be neatly packed in any given model.

Friends, knowing these stages should empower us to embrace Stage three’s Benevolence so as to influence how we as a society will respond as we move towards the peak or our pandemic. Let us engage Benevolence with pure authentic hearts as opposed to its being driven by a secret bargaining with God. Let us strive to do all we can to ride this pandemic resisting the advancement to stage 4 and definitely not stage 5 at all costs. This is our human call as people from all walks of life and especially as Christians who are called to emulate the love of Christ for all people. Let us heed to the Psalmist’s words

1 How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
3 For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore. Psalm 133 (NIV)


8 thoughts on “Evolving Social Ethics in a Pandemic

  1. Wow!
    I really do enjoy reading your blogs. This is very educative. I love the comparison of Dr. Kubler Ross stages of D&D and the pandemic. Got me thinking.
    Thanks Dr. Anne!

  2. My dear Anne, once again I am awestruck by your insightful thoughts in the magnitude of this creation. You have been and continue to be such a blessing to us!

    1. Nancy,
      Thank you so much for reading a long article and for your very kind comments. Means a lot to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *