Author: LY

Breaking up in COVID

This line in Part II struck me hard:

“Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking—all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.”

Camus, A., & Gilbert, S. (1991). The Plague [E-book]. Vintage. at Part II.

The struggles here persisted during the beginning of COVID. Travel restrictions and visitation limits uniformly imposed physical separation between loved ones, when not everyone signed up or have experience in long distant relationships. On campus in March 2020, I heard and saw parents pleading and strongarming their kids back to their home country despite there not being a clear way back to campus amid the travel bans on inbound traffic to Abu Dhabi. This extended between couples too – but what we do know is that COVID raised the divorce rate for people in lockdown by a significant amount. This reminded me of what a friend recently said to me, “COVID didn’t kill relationships, it merely expedited the end for relationships that already don’t work.”

Example of a contextual breakup text during COVID.

Many people found the experience of breaking up during a global health crisis a mixed bag. While the social seclusion from work responsibilities during lockdown allowed for ample space and time for healing and processing, people found themselves “to suffer the heartbreak in the same place where they experienced the good times”. The narrator didn’t really dive into the pain and desperation of the towns people at this point – but I would assume that they wouldn’t be writing positively about it.

Public Compliance and the formation of a New Norm

  I keep thinking about the policies imposed by the officials and how people responded to it during the pandemic – Londoners were initially supportive of the measures taken, but many began circumventing them as the plague dragged on. This strikes me as painfully relevant to the situations in many states where the governments struggled to contain a second, third, or forth wave. Three factors, I have concluded from the book, are at play here:

  • Seriousness of the pandemic
  • Intensity of the response
  • Public awareness

  Below, I have plotted the relations between these three factors:

  We can logically take it a priori that the intensity of the response will positively correlate with the seriousness of the plague (in Defoe’s case, the roster). Public awareness, as Londoners in his book demonstrated, dwindled as the pandemic continued throughout the year – and as such people began finding loopholes in the rules to not confine themselves to their houses. People began to doubt: are we over-reacting to this? Below is a Twitter screenshot of a relevant sentiment observed during our very own COVID-19:

Twitter @PaulEWalsh

  The notion of a “new normal” particularly interests me. In studying how societal norms form in response to external monitoring (i.e., government policies to tackle the plague), Ostrom (2000) conducted group experiments where she compared the evolution of societal norms under different conditions of 1) organic (i.e., no rules), 2) weak external monitoring (i.e., rules exist but aren’t really enforced), and 3) strong external monitoring (i.e., rules exist and are enforced stringently). I have summarized a chart of her findings below:

  For me, Defoe’s account of Londoner’s sentiment seems to correspond to the “weak external monitoring/sanctioning” mechanism in the experiment. In Ostrom’s research, she found that this scenario contains the worst outcome of all: norms of compliance don’t develop, and nor does cooperation between members of the group mature. In addition to this model of (lack of) norms, the public awareness of following measures and aversion towards the plague fatigued as the story progressed, towards the end when rumors of plague dying down inspired people to almost celebrate. This, to me, is especially relevant to the current situation and the sense of “limbo” as most states in the world move towards the near-total-control of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should the next wave arise, will people have the capacity to go into lockdown again and fight the next wave as we did the first wave?

Ostrom, E. (2000). Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(3), 137–158.