As a medical sociologist, Richard M. Carpiano studies the problems of public health, analyzing the impact of various social factors on the physical and mental health of people around the world.
Carpiano is a professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside. More recently, his research has focused on vaccine indecisionor the reasons underlying whether parents can decide not to vaccinate their children or delay vaccination coverage.
A pandemic like COVID-19 is especially interesting for sociologists because “it stimulates conversations by radically restructuring our social procedures,” said Carpiano. Below, he shares some thoughts on how coronavirus can have a far-reaching impact on our social structures and procedures.
As a sociologist, can you give us an idea of how you approach a pandemic like COVID-19 from a bird's eye view? What do you watch first?
For me, such an event is especially noticeable because of its ability to identify restrictions in social policy. As a society, we can plan so many human elements, but here is a virus that appears and shows all the weak connections that we have when it comes to things like family leave policies, unemployment policies and the public health politics.
When we talk about healthcare in the US, we often don’t discuss our public health system. This situation really shows how important it is to have a well-funded, well-organized public health system in this country at the county, state and national levels, and how important it is to have coordination between institutions. This is a sector that has not been invested in for a long time, especially at the federal level, but, as we can see, you really get what you pay for.
In your study, you study how social conditions and social inequalities affect health outcomes. How do you use this lens to monitor coronavirus?
Well, such a pandemic does not affect everyone equally. Of course, with COVID-19, we see differences in risk depending on age, and we can already see that certain groups are more marginalized when it comes to access to resources such as testing and medical care. But, in particular, this pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of people in various types of professions, many of which belong to traditionally lower income categories. It is revealed how closely our benefits are related to our work, what happens when this work disappears, and, ultimately, how many Americans get into difficult working situations.
What about the health effects that we can observe as a result of people being isolated and forced to radically change their usual habits?
Rumor has it that we can see the cohort at the birth of the coronavirus, because people spend more time on quarantine at home – this, of course, is time for intimacy, but also for more conflicts, because people live on each other for a long time. But we can also see a number of side effects on health from this pandemic, such as people leading a more sedentary lifestyle, eating more from boredom and generally less active. We can see an increase in alcohol consumption and substance abuse. I believe that most people currently have less access to their doctors or are less likely than usual to replenish their medications. All this can lead to additional health consequences in the future.
Do you see any unexpected silver lining that may result from this situation?
As a mechanism to overcome difficulties, I tried very hard to come up with some positive points that could come out of this, and I think that one of the reasons why this could be a silver lining is because this event really emphasized the importance of public administration. People criticize a lot about how the federal government is dealing with this situation, and many of them are legal, but we also see that government officials do accept the challenge and demonstrate leadership at a time when trust in the government is not exactly the highest. It was an opportunity for a new wave of political leaders to take a step forward – people showing that it was not only about politics or partisanship, but also about being a civil servant.
The reality is that there are very few people who are anti-government during a crisis. People turn to the government for instructions on what to do. As a result of this, I think we could see more trust in the state government in particular.
Are there any historical events that you consider equally destructive for society or in terms of comparison?
Perhaps because I was in New York when it happened on September 11th, but that’s what I’m coming to. It was a different situation when the United States was taken by surprise, and government restrictions were revealed very suddenly – the main restrictions on work, planning and problem solving. But after the events of September 11, we saw a real public impetus to find out how this happened and how we can prevent its recurrence. We saw the formation of the Commission on September 11 and many other significant changes made in the field of foreign policy and national security. I hope that a similar trend can spread after that, but with regard to public health and promoting new discussions about what we can do to prevent the repetition of something like this by strengthening our public health system.
You also study vaccine variations or reasons why some parents may not want to get their children vaccinated. Do you think this situation may have anything to do with changing public perceptions of vaccines to help skeptics view them more favorably?
Vaccines are not a bread and butter problem for the average American; most people in this country support them. In any case, I think that this situation could help increase support for elected officials to take more stringent measures to ensure that vaccination coverage is as high as possible. But when we look at a very small minority of vocal, wool-dyed groups that deal with anti-vaccines and actively lobby them, I, unfortunately, are not very optimistic that this event will greatly change their minds. We are already seeing many conspiracy theories surrounding this situation, and they tend to equate vaccine needs with “over-coverage of the government,” no matter what. But I think we could see one thing – their usual tactics don't work when it comes to the hearing of elected officials.
University of California – Riverside
Sociologist explains how coronavirus can change the world around us (April 2, 2020)
retrieved April 3, 2020
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