The social immune system in the context of the corona crisis

The current coronavirus crisis provides us with another opportunity to move towards a viable and sustainable society. The “social immune system” of society, which we urgently need to deal with challenges such as climate change, must be strengthened. The European Green Deal announced by the EU is unlikely to receive funding. Europe must now prepare itself to develop models of a less crisis-prone economy.

Маркус Фогт — ВікіпедіяCurrently, all financial, political, and social resources are being redistributed to combat the coronavirus. Given the existing risk of escalation, this is necessary and correct. At the same time, long-term goals such as standards of democracy, transparency, and international solidarity should not be overlooked. Concerning border closures, much effort will be required to restore trust and openness. It will also be difficult to deal with the pervasive situation of excess liabilities over assets and rising unemployment rates. Many entrepreneurs are at the end of their financial rope, despite public assistance. The burdens of society have been unevenly distributed: homeless people are deprived of their last chance of survival; conflicts are escalating in large families locked in small urban apartments, and many countries lack crisis-resistant health systems. Also, fear of losing control can permanently block preparedness for economic and environmental and social change. In the foreseeable future, there will not be sufficient funds to finance energy system restructuring. The automotive industry is calling for mitigation of climate protection requirements so that it can survive the crisis. It will not be easy to achieve pre-crisis levels of loyalty for short-haul transportation using public transport, as the coronavirus has created a great deal of distrust in society about close contact in public space. In the face of the crisis, issues such as climate protection and sustainability will seem secondary. Will the EU Green Deal be canceled because resources have been spent on overcoming the Coronavirus crisis?

Creating a long-term course

Society will change after the corona crisis. A return to the old order of things is simply impossible because society needs an innovative perspective for the future. At the same time, however, it is necessary to work on overcoming various conflicts of goals. Management of the crisis situation caused by the coronavirus cannot be limited to defensive measures on an ad hoc basis. Rather, it should point out the areas where society needs to develop to become stronger and more resilient in the face of multiple crises in the future. In this direction, sustainability as a systemic integration of social, environmental, and economic development can greatly expand society’s horizons. At present, long-term perspectives are being reflected upon. Recovery must be about restructuring, not reconstructing, old patterns. During the 2008-2009 financial crisis, we largely missed the chance to use its tipping point to introduce systemic innovations. As a consequence, there was a risk of the crisis recurring. We need to use the current corona crisis as an opportunity for change at least this time. Concerning sustainability and climate protection, we still need to know whether they will be perceived as a luxury to be postponed until better times, or discussed as a problem-oriented change management program. Germany’s presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2020 will be held under the banner of a corona crisis. The announced, “Green Deal” will only prove its worth if it uses the dynamics of a tipping point and promotes a less crisis-prone society.

Coronavirus pandemic as a systemic problem

There is a very direct thematic link between today’s crisis and sustainability or fragility, for example in areas such as globalization and mobility, borders and growth slowdown management, consumption, adoption of restrictions, solidarity, protection of the weak and, not least, healthcare. The corona crisis has demonstrated the importance of preventive measures in dealing with crises. This has much to do with the concept of sustainability:  it can be defined, on the one hand, as a shift from maintenance therapy to preventive treatment and, on the other hand, as switching from an individual approach to problem-solving to a systemic one. Sustainability is a conceptual response to the corona crisis and should be strategically developed even during crisis. Experience gained from successful improvement of healthcare systems to make them more flexible and resilient can be shared at the international level. Crises often have high mobilization potential for implementation of changes. The coronavirus pandemic is a time of dramatic changes. The problem is how to perform a transition from a pattern of changes caused by a catastrophe to a pattern of targeted, i.e. planned, changes. In any case, the coronavirus crisis is a test of strength for less idealistic concepts of sustainability that can come to the fore in the face of economic instability. This requires learning to evaluate problem hierarchies in complex systems and avoid “positive”  feedback , which exacerbates the problem exponentially . It is important to recognize system drivers and act in time before control of the situation is lost. How will we deal with multiple crises in the future? There are many lessons to be learned from the current pandemic to strengthen socio-economic, political, and cultural immune systems.

Vitality: growing with crises

Catastrophic social conditions will not necessarily lead to joyless developments from the situation. There are always people and societies that mature during crisis. Key elements are social and cultural communication resources, networks of solidarity, and the ability to approach negative experiences creatively (e.g. balcony singing of Italians). The concept of resilience searches for factors that enable systems, individuals, or societies to survive radical shocks or even improve because of them. Resilience research deal with psychological, social, or biological “immune systems”. Just as the immune system evolves as it encounters viruses, bacteria, and other biological challenges, social systems also need challenges for maturation and growth. This process of maturation does not flow by itself, but it is a result of confrontation and is not always successful. Quite many people and societies have experienced a severe crisis and developed enhanced empathy for the needs and concerns of their neighbors. The spatial metaphor of social distancing can be misunderstood if it is interpreted as social isolation and dissociation. Such understanding is particularly dangerous for older people. After all, communication and affection are also among the “foodstuffs” necessary for life. Solidarity is an essential resource for a viable society. Cultural and religious traditions can help us define the basic attitudes and behaviors needed to find solutions in solidarity and to mature in crises.

In times of crisis Christians will see whether their faith is an existential source of strength, or it is just as empty as churches on Easter for the first time in centuries. The crisis will show whether they depend entirely on the clergy in their worship, or they are able, despite all the limitations and difficulties of the  situation, to approach the circumstances creatively and feel the joy of Easter with their whole soul and their whole faith in the family and household. Easter during the corona crisis is a test for the future of the Church, in which the number of priests is continuously decreasing[1]. Perhaps, for the first time in (post)Christian societies, fasting has again acquired existential meaning. In any case, in Lent this year, we have found time to stop and understand that the seeming security of our world may suddenly disappear. What do religions have at their disposal apart from silly interpretations of this situation as God’s punishment, what guidance and encouragement can they give? Is the Church a “field hospital” (as Pope Francis has written) for the most needy? Easter is a holiday that, in the greatest crisis of all imaginable  – Good Friday – can find the sprouts of new life. However, this is exactly what is not yet available to us. Christian hope is hope even when there is no hope; it is confidence in facing the abysses of our being because there is also God in these abysses. One of the oldest definitions of faith can be found in the book of prophet Isaiah – “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all“: this is  very close to the notion of vitality. This definition does not focus on the preservation of material assets, but always implies change and transformation. The coronavirus pandemic makes us think about what needs to be changed to preserve ourselves and develop in a crisis.

Potential for social changes

The struggle in the corona crisis shows what a surprisingly short period  is needed to radically transform society. For a long time such a drastic reduction in consumption and international passenger and freight traffic has been deemed impossible. The crisis is a laboratory for testing coping strategies[2] aimed at overcoming the consequences of dramatic changes in everyday and economic life. Many of us are now discovering digital technologies for web conferencing, web-based learning, and personal communication. During the crisis, leisure culture and family affection have grown, the opportunities of contact with other people and our sedentary lifestyle[3] have increased while we are forced to stay at our homes. The dramatic reduction of carbon dioxide emissions makes it possible to achieve climate protection goals. The enormous determination to implement incentive programs to prevent the economy and society as a whole from collapsing in the face of the crisis gives us hope that these same activities can restructure our society so that it will become more viable, healthier and less harmful for the climate in the future. It is a matter of will.

Positive and negative experiences of change management[4] should be used to research transformation processes. Overcoming the crisis requires a great deal of social cohesion that has developed very positively and creatively in some cases: this has been manifested, for example, in helping our neighbors and in a huge, far-reaching involvement of the medical staff. The “discovery” of the importance of healthcare workers for the existence of our society should lead to increase in their salaries in the future. The high quality of Germany’s medical system has earned trust of the public. The rapid and comprehensive transition of schools and universities to digital education has become and still remains a significant social achievement. The virtualization of conferences has significantly saved time previously spent on travel. The wide approval of the anti-crisis measures proposed by politicians is a positive experience in these difficult times. People have demonstrated and are still demonstrating  a high degree of willingness to accept severe restrictions. Quality media coverage is the expression and driving force of a vibrant democracy. Attempts at denial[5] made by populist politicians around the world were quickly exposed. In the time of the corona crisis lies are quickly uncovered.

The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to reflections about our lifestyle. It has become a kind of social experiment in radical deceleration with great potential for sustainability and social cohesion. Digital technologies were introduced rapidly. It is now important to determine which structural changes will be reasonable to maintain or developed after the crisis. It will be necessary to re-master economic sustainability, which should have nothing in common with huge debts. We are only at the beginning of the crisis. Society will be different. We can and must learn much to strengthen social immune systems to fight future crises.


[1] The author refers to a shortage of priests in the Catholic Church in Germany. See more: Church bells in Germany are sounding the alarm: there is a shortage of priests:

[2] Coping, coping strategies are what a person does to cope with stress. They combine cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies that are used to cope with stress, and in general, with psychologically difficult situations in everyday life.

[3] The author emphasizes the similarity of today’s isolation at home to the sedentary lifestyle of Benedictine monks, stabilitas loci, which assumed constant stay at the same “native” monastery for the whole life.

[4] Change Management is a structural approach to transition of individuals, teams and organizations from their current state to the desired future state.

[5] The author refers to attempts by populists to deny the existence of the virus as such. For example, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro actively opposed measures to combat the pandemic, arguing that the coronavirus is a “fantasy”, an “unpleasant cold” and that he “will not feel anything if infected”. See more:


Markus Vogt, Head of the Department of Christian Social Ethics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; member of the research platform “Sustainability 2030”; publication on the topic “Change: Opportunity or Disaster?”, Munich, 2019.


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