A commentary by Georg Ruhrmann
The ongoing pandemic is a challenge. From a virologic and epidemiological perspective, it’s highly dynamic; and from a sociological standpoint, it’s highly complex. We don’t yet know whether and when we’ll be able to contain the virus – nor do we know how certain population groups will behave in society if the pandemic continues through the winter.
A crisis is often seen as the climax or turning point of a risky and dangerous development. But have we even reached the climax of the ongoing corona crisis? That’s where opinions are divided. A specific, conflictive and controversial debate is raging as to the risks of the pandemic and its consequences from an intergroup, organizational and societal perspective.
The contested issues are constantly repeated in the media: How reliable are our information sources in the face of targeted disinformation on social media and video platforms ? How contagious is the virus? Who and how many people are infected? When will there be a vaccine and how long do antibodies protect you after fighting off the disease? What’s next for the economy? How safe are jobs and occupational safety standards in various sectors?
In many media, technical terms and statistics are presented in such a way that you might think all listeners, viewers and users are easily able to follow. But is that actually the case? Probably not. One of the reasons is state crisis communication; just as we saw in the last pandemic (swine flu) ten years ago, information in the current crisis is being communicated from an expert perspective . This form of communication seems paternalistic and contradictory to many people.
Scientific statements about a risk are interpreted on the basis of each individual’s normative beliefs , attitudes, prior knowledge and views. They are understood and misunderstood. The same problem can be seen in politics. After all, decisions in times of crisis are not made by scientific experts, but rather policy-makers and legislators. Some politicians have communicated – and sometimes without opposing voices in the media – in a way that suggests they know exactly what is needed right now. And calls for a return to normality have been gathering momentum since the end of March. Return? Normality?
We can already learn our first political lessons from the measures taken to date  – not least because the effects of political crisis management can sometimes be interpreted for populist agendas that may serve to worsen the crisis. This is the case when, by way of example, the partial relaxation and judicial repeal of effective preventive measures and interventions  has not exactly led to the emergence of a »second wave«. Some of the interventions have since been vociferously criticized by some groups.
What next? In addition to the exemplary hygiene standards in some places, such as here in Jena , and mobile working, flexible working hours and occupational regulations, we particularly need more scientific insights. We have to comprehend the virology of the novel coronavirus and gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the pandemic, the COVID-19 disease and its profound economic, political and social consequences. To this end, we not only have to develop our established epidemiological approaches, but also conduct international and intercultural long-term comparative studies in the fields of social and economic research .
Above all, however, we need a broad social debate as to how a modern society’s self-image is shaped in times of crisis. The social sciences will conduct theoretical and empirical analysis of the communication of risky decisions and also examine the possibility of an evidence-based transfer of knowledge .
References cited in the text
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