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Steve Matthewman, New Zealand disaster sociologist: “One lesson from the pandemic is that people don’t want to go back to normal, they look for profound changes”

Sociologist and academic at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Steve Matthewman is an expert in the sociology of disasters. On the subject of the Covid-19 pandemic that affects the world, the author of the book Disasters, Risks and Revelation: Making Sense of Our Times (2015) argues that “as disasters drag on, disillusionment sets in”. “For this reason, we see a decrease in compliance with sanitary measures,” says Matthewman in an interview with Third.

From a sociological point of view, how does the Covid-19 pandemic impact the world?

I believe that all major disasters increase existing inequalities, so we could say that Covid-19 has polarized us in this regard. I also believe that some of the tensions that politicians and some aspects of the media have presented are completely false. For example, right-wing political parties have often installed the divide between economic well-being and public health with the idea that we can only have one or the other. This is false. Economies that opened early, like the UK, also suffered. Sweden is also an interesting case here. The country remained open and this decision meant that thousands of people died, more than in neighboring Scandinavian countries, but its economy is not in better shape.

How do you evaluate the responses of governments considering the lessons of the first wave of the coronavirus?

I think it largely depends on which country we talk about and their policies. In very general terms, it is clear that most people accept responsible leadership and scientific expertise. Consequently, most people agree to follow the sanitary rules on the use of masks, social distancing and others. Government responses from around the world tell us to be prepared because the seemingly impossible can happen. If we commit the necessary resources, governments can offer and guarantee a free childcare service, give homes to homeless people, ensure medical care for the population, grant citizenship to asylum seekers, we can even have a week four-day work. The other great lesson of the pandemic is that people do not want to return to normality, they seek deep and transformative changes.

What are the social implications of the pandemic, confinement and uncertainty in the face of the “new normal”?

As I mentioned, disasters like pandemics magnify social inequalities. So the bigger implications mean that vulnerable sectors are more likely to suffer. One of the great consequences of the pandemic has been the gender implications. Women have more care tasks with their families, they do more housework and are now also present in classes online. This means that women, who normally work longer than men, are now doing it even more.

One year after the first infections of Covid-19, why are the confinements and sanitary restrictions not generating the expected results?

In every disaster we see an initial “honeymoon” phase. As disasters drag on, disappointment sets in. For this reason, compliance with confinement measures, the use of masks, among others, often decreases. In New Zealand this was seen through GPS data derived from people’s mobile phones, which showed that people tended to move further away from home during subsequent closings.

What is the social effect of vaccines and anti-vaccine groups?

The vaccine is historical good news that was produced in less than a year, which is a world record. The previous record was the mumps vaccine, which took four years to develop. Anti-vaccine groups pose a problem and demonstrate a bigger theme: fake news (fake news). Now anyone can produce “news” and the algorithms of social networks tend to direct you towards similar stories, which produces an echo chamber effect. Academics, public authorities and the media have a duty to denounce these conspiracy theories.

What can we expect from the world without Covid-19?

It’s always hard to predict what’s next. But successful government interventions in the pandemic show us that another world is possible. Survey data also shows that the population wants another world. Around the world there is a mandate for progressive change. People want to live in a more equitable and more sustainable society. I hope that happens.

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