Responses to Social Starvation
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
One year ago today, the university I attend told its students that we would not be finishing the semester on campus. The play that I had been producing would never make it to the stage. There would be no commencement, no parties, and only the most rushed goodbyes. In the words of Ferris Bueller: "It's over, go home."
I did not go through this alone. Despite the limitations on gatherings, there was a real sense of solidarity in those first weeks, particularly among groups such as students who all felt like they were losing the same thing. The sense the of togetherness was, if anything, heightened. After that initial period, it became clear that one of the things lost in the conflagration was social interaction.
In an important study published in Current Anthropology in 1980, Robert Dirks created a framework for understanding the social response to society-wide calamities, namely famine. While there is some variation, he posits three sequential stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Upon reading his descriptions of these stages, I immediately thought of my own experiences in the past year, watching society adapt to dramatically changed circumstances beyond their control.
The first stage -- and the easiest one to identify -- is alarm. There is "abnormal excitement" and "intensified interaction in virtually every institutional sphere." This was the banana bread era of the pandemic, when despite the very real impacts it had on our lives, it was still an adventure. For many, the loss of employment and income meant that the pandemic was already real. For others, it was akin to a power outage: an inconvenience that gives an excuse to light a candle and crawl into a sleeping bag. Dirks notes that people of different classes often progress through the stages differently.
This dual nature of the early days of the pandemic was reflected in society at large. People wondered what the "song of the pandemic" would be. Late night shows still had episodes about the pandemic. Leaders who provided stability and regularity were lauded: in Ontario, Doug Ford became a "teddy bear," while people declared themselves "Cuomosexuals" in the states. These perspectives -- to varying degrees -- have not aged well.
Simultaneously, "political unrest sets in quickly," as Dirks described. Protest movements, inspired as they were by problems that predated the pandemic, were bolstered by a renewed sense of social solidarity. We were excitable, scared, restless and craving stability. It was a moment defined by alarm.
Then comes resistance. In famines, this stage is represented by a transition from people sharing what surplus they have with others to storing it for the sake of their own survival. As the real-life implications of the calamity set in, people start to mitigate its effects at the cost of of social solidarity. "Hyperactivity gives way to hypoactivity."
Baking banana bread is replaced by ordering food on Doordash. While the pandemic was not yet business-as-usual, we collectively realized that society had "long Covid." We resisted as best we could, mostly by paying attention to regulations, case counts, and predicted end dates for the pandemic.
Finally, exhaustion sets in. Following the daily impacts of the virus is futile. To call it "the new normal" erroneously implies that it is new. From that initial, horrible "adventure," we've arrived at the pandemic's new form: life, just thirty to sixty percent worse. In Dirks formulation, the starving have progressed to a stage of more profound hypoactivity: rather than conserving energy, they simply have none left.
Dirks effectively argued that patterns of "recursive change" in response to starvation are "remarkably uniform cross-culturally." But what about when what is lost is social interaction? How does a society respond to social starvation? In my view, the aforementioned stages accurately describe the social reaction to the pandemic, but only insofar as Dirks' framework is useful for understanding a societal response to any catastrophe. His work focuses on the correlation between the physiological and psychological effects of starvation, and then translating those psychological effects to an entire society. This pandemic is not a famine, so how has our response to it been unique?
In many ways, I think the differences between the stages are more noticeable. The "gregariousness" of the alarm phase was amplified by a fear of losing touch with friends. The resistance phase saw people try their hardest to find new ways to stay connected. Now, exhaustion in response to the pandemic overlaps with "Zoom fatigue," and our low social stamina. People my age, with our malleable brains, have become children of the pandemic.
I confess myself exhausted. At one year, the pandemic is no longer a calamity nor even an event. It is life. I cannot distinguish between how my personality has changed due to social starvation and how my lifestyle has changed due to factors beyond my control. Am I less sociable than I once was, or do I just lack the opportunities to socialize? In reality, the distinction is meaningless. Going back to who we were in 2019 is impossible.
One final thought: to characterize the pandemic as primarily a loss of social interaction, as opposed to a loss of income, employment, or a loss of life, demonstrates immense privilege. My experience of the Covid-19 pandemic is not the same as many others, however everyone's experience involved some level of "social starvation." I would not argue that parties are the primary loss of this global tragedy, but isolation does impact how we've all experienced the past year.