“The New Normal”: CMB Focused Discussion

Moderated by Samuel Veissière and Daniel Lende

In the first of a scheduled series of small meetings, CMB members Sam Veissière and Daniel Lende moderated a focused discussion on “The New Normal” (Weds., Aug. 5, 2020).  The purpose of these discussions is to help support, nurture, and build the CMB community during a challenging period. Our focus is on intellectual, scientific, and pedagogical innovation and sharing our knowledge and expertise. As a cautionary note, we are mindful of not allowing  COVID-19 to absorb all the light in our discussions. In future sessions, we are still planning to address a variety of topics that reflect the group’s ongoing scholarly and research interests.

Sam asked us to consider how we, as psychocultural scientists, might be relevant to help unravel the complicated questions raised by the current crisis. To get us started, Sam sketched out its current dimensions. We face a situation in which:

  1. All the pre-existing social, political, and economic pathologies have been exacerbated by the COVID crisis.
  2.  Most vulnerable populations are at highest risk and have been hardest hit.
  3. Social polarization and racial inequities have also been exacerbated.
  4. In the US, politicization of COVID-19 (around cause – wet market or land use and climate change; severity of the crisis; and implementation of preventive measures such as mask-wearing) has created a sharp split.
  5. Social media is deeply implicated in exacerbating these problems.
  6. In a survey of 13000 Canadians, social media use modulated higher stress in youth, but not in older people (Robillard et al. 2020).
  7. The impact of social isolation is unknown. The concern is for children in particular, especially emotional impact and other long-term developmental consequences.
  8. Community- or population-level protective factors are also unknown. These may range from human behavior, not only mask-wearing and social distancing but level of interpersonal trust and trust in governments to “immunological dark matter” (Karl Friston); “pre-existing cross-reactive T cell memory” (Mateus et al., 2020), and the childhood BCG vaccine against tuberculosis (Berg et al., 2020).

Checking In: “What Are Your Most Pressing Questions and Concerns?”

For Jeff Snodgrass,  the positive and negative impacts of our digital existences on health may be more pronounced during the pandemic. Jeff has just received an NSF grant to study “whether, when, and how social connections through the internet and other electronic means promote rather than compromise health at the level of immune biology during the current pandemic crisis.” Are there hidden sources of resilience? Can virtual worlds provide some of our psychosocial needs? Is the negative impact of quarantine offset but a rich digital life? Jeff thought the interaction between offline and online life may be illuminating.

Carole Browner, who lives in Mexico where the virus was slower to take hold, noted the impact of social-class differentiation, the impression being that people who are wealthier, who are more accustomed to acting with impunity in general, approach COVID-19 with the same attitude, presumed immunity. There is also a widespread belief that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. The situation is complex, dynamic, heterogeneous, and changing over time.

Daniel Lende noted how nondigitialized lives have changed and been enriched, especially regarding local interactions in Florida (some of which is being captured in his Instagram project @anthrointheeverday). At the same time, he was concerned that “things are just continuing to recreate themselves in the old normal. .  . . How can we move forward?” Rather than, how can the network be relevant during COVID-19, Daniel is as intrigued with how the network might illuminate the everyday changes (in, e.g., family interactions), that are accompanying the pandemic. Sam observed that, like Jeff (and later in the discussion, Greg), Daniel seems to be focused on how the pandemic “might kick start some really interesting transformations, perhaps for the greater good.”

What Is New about this Pandemic?

Rob Lemelson asked, what have we learned from COVID-19 that’s new or different, compared to what we’ve learned from previous pandemics?  Laurence Kirmayer thought we’re likely to emerge with a very different economy with an enduring emphasis on high-tech monopolies.  But Shinobu Kitayama saw the pandemic as an opportunity to ask, “what kind of change do we want to cause and sustain?” In Canada, an economic experiment re universal basic income is already underway with the potential effect of reducing COVID-related stress, Laurence Kirmayer noted, vs. the US, where huge health-care access inequalities are exacerbating the situation.

“As scientists,” Carol Worthman observed, “We have direct roles to change the public health-biomedicine-industrial complex.”  But what had never been considered, she continued, regarding the US’s success is public health and biomedicine  is, “what do you do when you take best practices in  public health to scale?”

Other novel issues and questions raised by the pandemic that the group mentioned included:

  1. The kinds and quality of information circulating.
  2. The changing ways we do science. As Carol noted, COVID-19 has revealed a lot of areas that need work.
  3. How will pandemic affect social norms and practices, especially with respect to ingroup/outgroup biases? Will ingroup bias become more entrenched?
  4. The virtual economy and virtual social relations, which create different kinds of winners and losers.
  5. New, hybrid forms of sociality creating new risk and also new kinds of resilience.

Tawni Tidwell thought information democratization, the changing ways in which we are engaging, and new constructions of expertise during the pandemic were really unique. She described how Tibetan exile populations have been affected and how  Tibetan medicine has stepped up to the challenge of prevention and treatment of the virus, including tracking and sharing data (Tidwell, 2020).

In contrast, Greg Downey mentioned the damage to the US reputation and leadership in Australia, the sense of confusion regarding the US going forward, the discrediting of American expertise. Laurence referred to the situation as an object lesson on the nature of civil society and necessary cultural ingredients, reminding us that US ideology, like the gun issue, is not shared.

Shinobu referred to the situation, especially the role of the media, as a tragedy: “Americans are being manipulated by the social system without realizing it via “free choice.”One of the things that has changed in the past ten years,” Sam observed, “is that the media is not as top-down, the bottom-up has been significantly heightened by the Internet. Content matters less than the source,” exacerbating pre-existing ingroup and outgroup dynamics. As social scientists, we need to have a theory about this, why humans are behaving in this particular way?”

Rather than considering this from a behavioral or evolutionary framework (ingroup/outgroup, threat perception), Greg Downey placed more emphasis on what is happening in the aftermath of decades-long social experimentation with privatization, extreme individualism, and disinvestment in public education and public health,” a disinvestment, Laurence added, which is “harnessed by a small economic elite.” In comparison, Seinenu Thein described the situation in Burma, recently liberalized, which remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Burma has been able to contain COVID-19 with severely limited resources, although the situation may be changing.

Seinenu also noted how the discussion of the pandemic thus far has illuminated “continuities and discontinuities” (for example, persistent racial disparities on the one hand and the US public infrastructure failures vis-a-vis the rest of the world on the other). Jeff and Sam suggested other factors may be contributing to the virus’s spread, including immune biology, exposure to other viruses, and degree of cultural “tightness” or “looseness.” Shinobu Kitayama‘s recent collaborations have addressed these variables. Shinobu and colleagues have produced papers on the social and behavioral science responses to COVID-19, racial and economic disparities, the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis as a protective factor, and a facet of individualism known as “relational mobility” (“How socially open are you?”), which has proven to be a strong predictor of infection rate.

We face disorienting uncertainty in terms of the world being able to effectively address the challenges and tradeoffs brought to light by the pandemic. (Both Laurence and Daniel suggested a number of helpful books and papers relating to some of the issues raised.) But  the discussants mentioned several things the network can do:

  1. Share and innovate with respect to media projects, online pedagogy, learning spaces.
  2. Develop more sophisticated forms of student assessment.
  3. Improve scholarly communication, particularly lateral communication between experts in different disciplines.
  4. Continuing to build and refine the CMB model to allow people to engage in more integrative, collaborative, and translational research and public outreach.