Community Biosocial Transformation in the Pandemic Era and the Wisdom Behind It

By: Iqbal Nurul Azhar

The Covid-19 pandemic that has lasted for more than a year is a biosocial crisis, in the sense that this pandemic does affect not only public health but also the vitality of the basics of sociality in human life. It impacts the physiological structure of society, which can be seen from the susceptibility of their bodies to virus exposure and the emergence of epidemiological problems. Not only that, but this pandemic has also hit the biosocial structure of society. Biosocial is a psychological concept that seeks to understand social behavior by relating it to society’s biological symptoms.

Based on this biosocial concept, we can see that the pandemic gives birth to a linear relationship between societal changes and biological phenomena in each individual. Thus, it can be interpreted that community activities in the form of moving and making contact between humans are not only a living environment for the Covid-19 virus but also a habitat where social life that surrounds the existence of the virus is ultimately reorganized to adapt to the rapid spread of the virus and community situations. This condition is in line with what Foucault said in his book The Birth of Bio-power (2008, pp. 242ff) that pandemics work as an expression of the various interfaces between the biological bodies of members of society and sociality, as well as the epidemiological, cultural and social consequences associated with how the body behaves, is treated, controlled, and disciplined in the dispositive biopower.

If we look closely, the pandemic affects the holobiont, namely the human body in physical and physiological dimensions as the host organism and bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms around it. When the virus is present among communities and restricts their movement, the bodies of individuals in society instinctively make efforts to gather socially. They also attempt morally to hold hand in hand, communicate normatively with emergency standards, aim to discipline themselves, explore solutions to facilitate the organization of interaction, and limit and reshape existing communication practices in a way that remains meaningful. This is known as socio-holobiont change.

One form of socio-holobiont change that is very much acknowledged around us during this pandemic is how our society exchanges greetings in social interaction. If we observe all aspects of community interaction using multimodal, which is commonly used by the community, we will see this fundamental change. The basics of society’s sociality shifted and gave rise to its challenges for them to adapt.

When public health authorities around the world such as WHO establish recommendations regarding ‘social distancing’ and ‘physical distancing’ as mitigation measures to stop transmission centrally targeting greetings (no hugs, no handshakes, no cheek-to-cheek greetings), these acts, in an epidemiological perspective, are understood as the acts to treat human bodies (such as hands, body, sweat, saliva in the mouth) as the vectors of transmission. Thus, when the greeting tradition that involves physical touches is abolished, this becomes a dilemma for the community. Those who are strict on the tradition that communication must begin with a physical contact of greeting, whether by hand or cheeks, will find it strange not to include the body parts. On the other hand, those who are not used to doing this will find it adventurous because eventually, they can explore undiscovered humanly ways to say hello but still safe from a health perspective. Whatever they choose, in the end, people respond to this ‘non-physical challenge of greeting’ in a different way.

Handshakes, hugs, and cheek greetings are part of haptic socialization (socialization by involving body members meeting), routinely carried out in the pre-Covid-19 era. As the pandemic appears, people who are used to greeting in this way then restructure their culture. In a study conducted by Mondada, et.al (2020), at least two ways were found regarding this restructuring process. First, the community does this by suspending haptic socialization activities for an indefinite period. Second, they explicitly negotiated haptic socialization, which could end in accepting or refusing to hug, with orientation to social distancing.

The two choices mentioned above lead to a dilemma whether people should choose to greet haptically or not and give rise to radical consequences, namely that they are required to maintain the practice of ‘old traditions’ and find ‘new traditions’ in greeting. If this new tradition is discovered, the alternatives that emerge, even though they are labeled with the spirit of ‘maintaining social aspects or ‘keeping a distance,’ will still be contrary to the nature of ‘social distance’ and ‘social contact’ echoed in various prevention and response discourses.

Creative exploration of new ways of doing touch and greeting remotely, such as placing two palms on the chest, has an orientation on the relevance of politeness. The slight bow at a distance has a different relevance, namely formality and respect. This practice was eventually ‘discovered’ to preserve haptic sociality in its new format.

The new ways are a creative social-activity modification by updating the existing ways and placing them in new contexts and situations. Mondada, et.al (2020), in their research, mentions that when these creative ways are done at the beginning of the pandemic, it often causes awkwardness and laughter. Interestingly, looking at recent developments, several new greeting techniques, one of which is the touch of elbows and feet, turned out to be conventionally successful and settled in people’s minds. This is shown by the many practices of this greeting that run smoothly, without a hitch without resulting more awkwardness and laughter.

This change shows that the community has been actively and intelligently involved in ‘finding’ greeting techniques of ‘physical and social distance’ that can adapt to the situation without ever leaving the basic principles of human sociality, which have always made haptic greetings a part of life.

So what are the implications of the emergence of this new greeting technique on the social quality of society? The challenges of greeting during this pandemic have indirectly made people upgrade themselves by practicing accountability for actions (see Garfinkel, 1967). This accountability has two distinct but interrelated dimensions. The first is clarity of action, reciprocity, and trust between the participants of the communication. When someone uses a new greeting technique, he/she hopes that the other person will do the same. Without this reciprocity, communication will become awkward and may embarrass one of the parties. Thus, this new technical greeting activity makes people learn to appreciate a person’s positive face and the wishes of others in implementing health protocols. The second is the normativity of action and moral expectations. Because this greeting has become a general convention, people are expected to understand this trend and slowly make it a guide and part of life. People who are intolerant of this trend will be considered to have less moral.

Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic is essentially a social incubation for people to learn to be more mature and tolerant, as well as learn to modify something that already exists so that it remains meaningful. They also learn to accept something new in their life without needing to put up any resistance in this pandemic since the pandemic has undeniably lived and will live side by side with society for a long time. The changing form of routine greeting is a documentation of the revolution in the social conditions of society to adapt to the pandemic. It makes us understand how pandemics affect human sociality and gives people a rare opportunity to make their lives more colorful.

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