Editorial

The Societal Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic Explained via Three Frameworks

in The International Journal of Social Quality
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Harry G. J. NijhuisUniversity of Nijmegen, The Netherlands and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, USA hgjnijhuis@gmail.com

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Laurent J.G. van der MaesenInternational Association on Social Quality, The Netherlands vandermaesen@planet.nl

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At the dawn of the devastating events of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the editorial of the first issue of 2020, as well as in the articles, topics related to the overwhelming impact of the emerging crisis were explored (). In particular, reference was made to the topical performances of the federal governments of the United States and Brazil, as well as the British government. As an introduction to this special issue, it is interesting to recall and extend some of the observations that were made last year.

In the case of the United States, when COVID-19 appeared, the hazards of the virus were downplayed and even neglected. The president countered the opinion of public health experts with false, misleading comparisons to other countries (). It was proposed to cut the budget of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention by 16 percent starting in October 2020. Long-lasting contacts and collaboration with the World Health Organization were broken. Due to export restrictions on medical products, importing countries were unable to obtain sufficient medical equipment, resulting in a shortage in healthcare equipment that had to be made for up via a mandatory increase in local production. This came at a high cost and with serious delays (). For the United States itself, the initial attitude of the government resulted in a dramatic blow to its public health resources and capabilities. The quality of hundreds of health departments around the country suggests that the nation may be less prepared for the next pandemic than it was for the current one (). The violence toward public health professions is gradually taking shape (). An overriding societal pattern, which in the United States undermines the principles of effective public health, is the primacy of personal rights over collective responsibility and solidarity. More than half of US states have introduced new laws to restrict public health measures, including policies requiring quarantine and mandating vaccines and/or masks.

The longer this virus continues to spread in largely unvaccinated populations globally, the more likely it is that a variant that can overcome our vaccines and treatments will emerge. If that happens, we could be close to square one. This political drift and lack of leadership is prolonging the pandemic for everyone, with governments unwilling to really address inequitable access to the vaccines, tests and treatment. There have been wonderful speeches, warm words, but not the actions needed to ensure fair access to what we know works and would bring the pandemic to a close. (Farrar J. December 2021; in Savage et al. 2021)

Societal Impact as Leading Perspective

At the dawn of the devastating events of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the editorial of the first issue of 2020, as well as in the articles, topics related to the overwhelming impact of the emerging crisis were explored (Van der Maesen 2020). In particular, reference was made to the topical performances of the federal governments of the United States and Brazil, as well as the British government. As an introduction to this special issue, it is interesting to recall and extend some of the observations that were made last year.

In the case of the United States, when COVID-19 appeared, the hazards of the virus were downplayed and even neglected. The president countered the opinion of public health experts with false, misleading comparisons to other countries (Qiu 2020). It was proposed to cut the budget of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention by 16 percent starting in October 2020. Long-lasting contacts and collaboration with the World Health Organization were broken. Due to export restrictions on medical products, importing countries were unable to obtain sufficient medical equipment, resulting in a shortage in healthcare equipment that had to be made for up via a mandatory increase in local production. This came at a high cost and with serious delays (Krueger 2020). For the United States itself, the initial attitude of the government resulted in a dramatic blow to its public health resources and capabilities. The quality of hundreds of health departments around the country suggests that the nation may be less prepared for the next pandemic than it was for the current one (Baker and Ivory 2021). The violence toward public health professions is gradually taking shape (Schreiber 2021). An overriding societal pattern, which in the United States undermines the principles of effective public health, is the primacy of personal rights over collective responsibility and solidarity. More than half of US states have introduced new laws to restrict public health measures, including policies requiring quarantine and mandating vaccines and/or masks.

In the case of Brazil, Vanessa Barbara recently presented the conclusions of a special Senate committee about the role of the current federal government has played in the pandemic getting out of hand:

Painstakingly assembled, it details how Mr. Bolsonaro actively helped to spread the virus, no matter the cost to human life … for example, the government delayed the purchase of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses … the initial draft proposed that Mr. Bolsonaro be charged with mass homicide and genocide against Brazil's indigenous population, who have been particularly hard hit, but those charges were later removed. (Barbara 2021)

Notwithstanding this, following President Trump's methods, he found a haven for permanent disinformation. According Ernesto Londono and colleagues (2021), he organized his official channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging and social media platform with millions of followers that is run by an elusive Russian exile.

With regard to the British government, the question of why it (and the nation) had fared so poorly at the start of the outbreak was posed:

The UK did significantly worse in terms of COVID deaths than many other countries—especially compared to those in East Asia even, though they were much closer geographically to where the virus first appeared. The scale of this early loss requires us to ask why the UK was affected worse than others … the UK's pandemic planning was too narrowly and inflexibly based on a flu model which failed to learn the lessons from SARS, MERS and Ebola. The result was that whilst our pandemic planning had been globally acclaimed, it performed less well than other countries when it was needed. (House of Commons 2021: 5–6)

Ian Sample and Peter Walker, referring to the above-cited report's conclusion, state that groupthink, a sense of British exceptionalism, and a deliberately slow gradualist approach caused the adverse outcomes. Wrong policies led to thousands of more deaths than would have resulted from early, more emphatic politics. We are confronted with “the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced” (Sample and Walker 2021).

Since the publication of Volume 10.1, numerous publications and policy documents have appeared discussing issues concerning the epidemiology of the pandemic, restrictions on physical contact, new medical devices, and measures to compensate for COVID's various economic and culturally adverse impacts. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating that in one way or another human interference has had a decisive impact on the country-specific and global course of the COVID-19 crisis. However, we are still groping in the dark about the precise nature of the human activities that underlie the dynamics of its emergence, its spread, and the responses it has evoked. Rightly, the world is still worried about the possibility of new COVID-19 outbreaks and other pandemics to come. What, then, could be specific role and added value of an IJSQ thematic issue addressing the events of the pandemic brought together under the aegis of “societal impact?”

The main purpose of this issue is to explore the COVID-19 pandemic as a complex of human activities that impact both the course of the pandemic as well as its outcomes and the measures that have been taken to cope with and mitigate its consequences. The nature, the dynamics, and the outcomes of these human activities are collectively referred to as “societal impact.” Conceived in this way, societal impact refers to the reciprocal interrelationships between the different ways in which humans interact with nature and with each other. In the above-mentioned editorial, it was argued that human interference results from processes taking place in and between four societal dimensions: socioenvironmental and ecological, sociopolitical and legal, socioeconomic and financial, and sociocultural and welfare. This four-dimensional distinction was presented earlier as an essential addition to the social quality frameworks (IASQ 2012, 2019). This assumption constitutes an important component of the specific significance of this special issue. As we will explain further on in this introductory editorial, it is precisely the combined deployment of three frameworks, elaborated as social quality approaches, that provides an explanatory perspective from which we can acquire a truthful, in-depth, and comprehensive understanding of the societal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other similar crises alike.

From these specific social-quality-oriented conceptualizations of and approaches to “societal impact,” we have tried to expose as much as possible the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The contributors to this issue were invited to present their empirical analyses and interpretations through the lens of societal impact. In the course of the preparation of their studies and articles, productive discussions developed concerning the introduction of (elements of) the three frameworks. Based on these social quality perspectives, notable issues, recommendations, and prospects for future research will be explored in this editorial, in the specific introductions to the distinguished parts of this issue, and in the concluding overall reflections to this issue.

Epidemiological Patterns and Societal Impact

In this section, we present epidemiological information about the eleven countries where the case studies presented in this thematic issue are situated. As far as the interpretation of the data is concerned, we think it is important to note that differential underreporting has very likely biased the figures.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Cumulative Confirmed COVID-19 Cases per Million People for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010201

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Cumulative Confirmed COVID-19 Deaths per Million People for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010201

Epidemiologically, the welfare burdens borne by the people living in these respective countries are, among other statistics, made visible through the number of cases and deaths. It is not our aim to scientifically explain the differences. We merely present some remarkable observations that underpin the notion that “societal impact” is a most important aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is interesting to note that in China, where the first dramatic wave of the COVID-19 pandemic took place, the rate of cases and deaths has remained remarkably low ever since. After the initial outbreak in Wuhan, which locally counted many victims, country-wise the epidemic nearly vanished. In the Chinese case study, this remarkable course is explained by processes that were operational in the sociopolitical and legal dimension, the so-called “whole of government approach.” In the case of Pakistan, the low case and death rates are difficult to interpret, most likely because of registration biases. Australia and Japan do show low rates, and this scenario very well may be interpreted by their strict lockdowns and travel restrictions. In the case studies, these societal measures are shown to cause serious societal frictions. The situation in Germany is more or less average when compared to those of many other European countries and from our perspective does not give rise to specific notable epidemiological observations. South Africa, compared to other countries in similar climate zones on the African continent, shows high rates of cases and deaths. In the case study presented, the hazardous socioenvironmental living conditions and processes in other societal dimensions, which specifically affect black communities, are shown to lie at the root of these high figures. Italy shows relatively high (cumulative) rates. These to a large extent can be traced back to the fact that northern Italy was the first region, after China, to be caught in an enormous outbreak. The enormous initial sacrifices have—compared to China since they were clearly visible in the relatively small Italian population—strongly influenced the final epidemic figures.

In the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, the number of victims appears to be among the highest in the world. In each of these countries—at least in the initial stages—the pandemic caused enormous suffering. In the case of Brazil, the dramatic situation still continues. We opened this editorial by illustrating how in these three countries political motives and attitudes frustrated rapid and effective coping strategies. It may be not coincidental that these very governments initially, for political reasons, stubbornly denied the virulence of the COVID-19 virus as well as the devastating societal impacts that it has had. In the case study of Brazil, this aspect of “societal impact” is thoroughly discussed. In the case studies of the United Kingdom and the United States, these sociopolitical dimensions are not discussed. Their focus lies on other themes of “societal impact.”

The interpretation of Figure 3 on vaccination coverage leads to a different kind of observation concerning the societal impact of the pandemic. There is a significant difference in vaccination coverage between the three low-income countries India, South Africa, and Pakistan (around 20 percent) and the eight participating high-income countries (around 65 percent). At present, global figures indicate a 4.2 percent average for low-income countries as against 51.1 percent as the current average for the world. These large differences arise from questions related to the accessibility of available vaccines, which is determined by economic and financial factors, political will, and legal issues. Considering the dramatic differences, at least two global questions do emerge. The first refers to the moral acceptability of these differences, which put numerous people living in disadvantaged circumstances at risk (Public Eye 2021). The second refers to the fact that we need to consider the hazardous microbiological and ecological dynamics in the intersections between socioenvironmental, sociobehavioral, and other societal conditions. The hazardous critical socioenvironmental ecological situations that arise from these complex intersections may lead to dangerous viral mutations, uncontrollable sources of infection, and the easy spread of disease. These conditions are likely to occur precisely in the low vaccination coverage communities that are being created right now. These enormous global threats are a clear invitation to develop methodologies for a comprehensive understanding of the societal complexities at stake, as well as comprehensive practical approaches to cope and prevent crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, the three social quality frameworks are explained, and we believe that they may facilitate these comprehensive practical approaches.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Cumulative Confirmed Percentage of the Population Having Received Full Vaccination for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010201

Highlights of the Eleven Presented Cases

Before discussing the social quality frameworks, we will introduce the eleven case studies presented in this thematic issue in order to provide the empirical contexts in which the “societal impact” of COVID-19 is expressed. This includes that national epidemiological situation and the politico-administrative, economic, and cultural factors obtaining in each country. In the case of Brazil, the socioenvironmental contextual situation is included in the analysis. We have divided the articles in this issue, according to their substance and significance, into five categories: (1) diverging government approaches; (2) the moral impact of government interventions; (3) civic activism as a response to the crisis; (4) widening societal inequalities; and (5) selected topics of societal impact.

Part I: Diverging Government Approaches

In the Italian case, analyses and interpretations are presented regarding the main features of the societal impacts of the government approaches. The focus in analyzing figures has been put on processes related to the labor market. Fragmentation is found to be the main obstructing feature of both the societal contexts and the applied approaches. Such appeared to be the case in the decentralized Italian politico-administrative system and in a multitude of institutional arrangements, among which was the healthcare system. It is observed that existing inequalities have remained intact or have even widened. In terms of the labor market, this inequality has to do with gender, geography, and age. The overriding, transcending conclusion is that because of the observed combined sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociocultural imbalances, “overall sustainability” is at stake.

In the case of China, detailed descriptions are presented concerning the structure and workings of the government approaches. The strongly centralized whole of government approach is depicted as well thought out, powerful, mandatory, and efficient. The approach in the sociopolitical and legal dimension has been able—by vertical and horizontal integration—to involve government departments at all levels, private companies producing medical materials, and companies providing information and communications technology (ICT) devices. In the approaches, emphasis was put on involving resident communities by deploying at the grassroots level official community agents, volunteer organizations, and ICT devices. Special attention is given to the effectiveness of the use of a supportive smartphone that alerted people and was used to monitor the compliance of residents. The article does not intend to be analytical and explanatory. In the conclusions, questions for future research are posed regarding underlying cultural, political, and economic patterns.

Part II: The Moral Impact of Government Interventions

In the case of India, it is shown how the gross inequalities in society between the haves and have-nots have deteriorated during the pandemic. The study in selected states analyzed court directives and critical issues raised by political parties. The existing segmentation of the healthcare in an adequate private care system for the rich and a low-quality public system for the poor became a critical determinant of the devastating impacts of COVID-19 for the disadvantaged. The government approach involved enforcing early rigorous lockdowns when 3,000 people were infected. This painfully contrasted with later stages, when more the 93,000 cases per day were reported, there were hardly any measures to control the epidemic, and no programs were applied to relieve health burdens, among others. Corruption appeared a common feature in the unequal accessibility of care services. In this article, the actions of the Indian government were assessed using moral foundations theory in combination with social quality theory (SQT). In addition, the enforced, disgraceful burial practices are seen as a graded dignity between the rich and the poor.

The article from South Africa looks at how the different kinds of existing socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural imbalances have deteriorated during the pandemic. It is observed that, due to the growing economic crisis, the health and well-being of poor black communities were seriously affected. Existing inequalities widened. The flaring up of political struggles following the imprisonment of the former president have led to widespread unrest and destruction. This pattern seriously obstructed measures to cope with the pandemic and relieve the burdens of the communities affected. It is concluded that the pandemic experiences point to a failing economic system that has long neglected the poor. If this neglect continues, the societal unrest also may continue. The South African observations are interpreted with reference to the African decolonial and sociopolitical theories of Neville Alexander, Archie Mafeje, and Roger Southall.

In the case of Brazil, the impacts of the pandemic on the lives of indigenous populations living in the Amazon are analyzed. It is observed that these peoples and territories, based on an ethnoracial bias, were disproportionally adversely affected. The impacts are explained as aggravations of existing underlying trends in various domains of live. Misgovernance and chaos caused by the national government lies at the root of the dramatic events, including numerous unnecessary deaths in the Amazon. This is referred to as “necropolitics.” The article explores how the pandemic intertwined with the intersecting dynamics of underlying sociopolitical, socioeconomic, sociocultural, and socioenvironmental processes. Long-term discriminatory policies and practices, deprivation of adequate health services, urban–rural dynamics, land expropriation, and deforestation constitute a devastating blow to human existence. The author proposes a dialogue between theoretical decolonial and social quality approaches to analyze, unveil, and denounce the interplay between the coloniality of power patterns in non-Western contexts.

Part III: Civic Activism as a Response to the Crisis

In the German case, the impacts of the pandemic, in particular the imposed restrictions on physical contact, on the resilience and strength of civil societies are explored. The findings are derived from long-term surveys of various volunteer organizations before the pandemic, as well as present observations. No clear outcomes are found in terms of weaknesses and strengths. Some observations suggest that, through the increased opportunities of the state-imposed online communications, the communicative space to participate in local political processes has increased as well as improved. The findings are interpreted as signs of resilience of civil society networks in the realm of sociocultural and welfare activities. The concept of a vital civil society from there is connected with inclusive participative democratic patterns.

In the case of the United Kingdom, determinants of the formation and resilience of mutual aid groups (MAGs) in local communities all over the country is analyzed. For the analysis, the MAGs are characterized according to different sociocultural, socioeconomic, and socioenvironmental issues—for example, austerity strategies, climate action, fair trade, green business, and radical environmental activism. These characteristics are connected with the social quality conditional factors. The presence of “radical (or even anarchist) environmental activism” in communities is shown to be a good predictor of resilience and civic activism. Interference from or the involvement of the state at the local and the national level looks to be counterproductive to these features of community strength. The shift in creating potentialities for resilience and civic activism, from “austerity strategies” to “radical civic activism,” is seen as being vital to community empowerment as part and parcel of the development of contemporary democratic patterns.

Part IV: Widening of Societal Inequalities

In the contribution from Pakistan (Lahore) and the first contribution from the United States (Cincinnati), subjective perceptions of disadvantaged families are qualitatively explored regarding the impacts of the pandemic on the circumstances of their daily lives. In both cases, emphasis is put on the consequences of lockdowns and other restrictions, such as those concerning interpersonal contacts, isolation, socioeconomic security, and discrimination.

In the case of Pakistani families, displaced from their homes in the Lahore and living along a newly built railway, the adverse interaction between conditional factors (insecurity regarding health, economic situation, housing, education) do interact with the ruptures in social cohesion. The impacts of the pandemic are interpreted as negative factors in the downward mobility cycle of deprivation. They are aggravations of existing inequalities. Urgent recommendations to reorienting government policies regarding disadvantaged people, like the those who were interviewed in the study, are made.

In the case of the United States caregivers of children in lower-income neighborhoods were found to experience loss of interpersonal, societal connectedness and social cohesion. They also expressed adverse impacts on socioeconomic security, social empowerment (learning), social inclusion, and mental health. The findings are, like in Pakistan, interpreted as exacerbations of preexisting societal inequalities. The toll of the pandemic was exacerbated by the political divisiveness, economic uncertainty, and societal tensions that have long existed in the United States. The positive impact, in the sociocultural realm, is that through the crisis communities have been striving to find ways to foster social connectedness and disrupt isolation and loneliness.

Part V: Selected Topics of Societal Impact

In this part of the special issue, contributions that could not be grouped under one of the former themes are presented. In the case study from Japan, the impacts of the pandemic on the procurement of migrant workers from other Southeast Asian countries for employment in the Japanese system of care for the elderly are analyzed and discussed. The rapidly aging population has created a large dependency on Japan's neighboring countries. The frictions in the daily lives of the migrant workers in Japanese culture are part of the study. The pandemic is found to have accentuated “the structural fragile dependency” of Japan on foreign partnerships. In this light, it also has brought to the fore the marginalized living situations of migrant workers in Japanese culture and the need for developing a new “socioemotional commons” in which (the care for) elderly may come better into its own. Japan as a society stands at a crossroads; it needs to overhaul “what constitutes itself.”

The study from Australia focuses on the perceptions of midlife women regarding the pandemic impacts on trust. Trust (between persons, media, government, experts, politicians, the media, and institutions) is conceived as a crucial factor of social cohesion. The pandemic has had a differential impact in shaping or breaking down trust. It is argued that in contemporary society people have to rely strongly on public information channels. The uncontrollable stream of information through social media is found to exert a large influence on shaping (dis)trust. From the observations obtained in this study, conclusions could be drawn for future pandemic situations.

The second study from the United States concerns a methodological question related to the adequate framing of problems as a means to acquire adequate solutions, especially in times of crisis. The study, based on the so-called “Cynefin” framework, mainly presents theoretical arguments to not reduce problems to be solved to simple and clear cause-and-effect relationships. Complex contextual situations require the inclusion of many and various relationships of influence. The propositions are illustrated by the frictions with clinical staffing in a hospital during pandemic times. The authors argue for more comprehensive approaches to achieve effective solutions for complex societal problems.

Three Social Quality Frameworks

The eleven studies, shortly introduced here, are not really consistent in their scientific approaches, both in the ontological sense (propositions on the nature of reality), as well as in the epistemological sense (methodologies to obtain reliable and valid information). It is therefore hard to compare the studies and their outcomes, and synthesize consistent notions and conclusions concerning the fields of study. Such consistency in approaches also constitutes the foundation of the more universal comprehension of the nature and dynamics of societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same holds true for the in-depth and comprehensive understanding of other crisis situations, for example climate change, bio-degeneration, nature pollution, and the global frictions caused by migration and poverty. Too often, the focus in the scientific approach is put on a specific aspect of this kind of complex problem (“problematic”). In order to develop coherent, comprehensive knowledge of these phenomena, various disciplines from both the human sciences and the natural sciences are needed to underpin our decisions and solutions. We therefore consider it an essential challenge to create similar ways of scientific exploration, be it in crisis situations or beyond. The three frameworks, developed from SQT, represent significant perspectives from which to create the required consistency in the ontological and epistemological approaches. The outcomes of the endeavors to deploy and test these frameworks in studies will deliver the opportunities to take new steps to further develop the frameworks and the theoretical consistency of acquired knowledge.

The use of the word “social” in the human sciences (and public debate, policymaking, and everyday speech) constitutes a pervasive example of the above-identified disturbing lack of conceptual consistency. In the human sciences, it is all over the place and is often deployed as a core concept of research. The concept of “the social,” though, is rarely theoretically elaborated and unequivocally framed. The neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek rightly criticized this messy typological tradition of the use of the term “social” (Piper 1997). In the COVID discourse, the same equivocal use of the term “social” appeared, among other places, in the term “social distance.” Under contact restrictions, “social distancing” is not at issue in numerous situations of digital communication. So, “physical distance” ought to be the right concept.

Also, in the global discourse on the challenge of sustainability the adjective “social” became very popular. A good example of the confusing deployment is found in the pathbreaking UN Report by Harlem Brundtland, Amartya Sen, and others regarding “overall sustainability” (UN 1987, also known as “the Brundtland Report”). The adjective was not clearly conceptualized and was typologized as an obscure adjective describing all kinds of societal phenomena. In their report, these authors made a distinction between the three pillars of sustainability: the economic, the social, and the environmental, which they also referred to as “dimensions.” All institutes of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and, recently, all members of the BRICS platform (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) (BRICS 2021; Ricceri 2019) thereafter followed the same path. For the theorizing and understanding of societal processes and their impacts on citizens, the loose deployment of the adjective “social” causes confusion, leads to inconsistency, and by definition is subversive.

This critical scientific issue played an important role in explanations of the UN Brundtland Report. From the IASQ in 2012 a working group was established regarding the global question of “how to contribute to overall sustainability.” The tradition of the loose use of “social” in the Report was criticized (IASQ 2012). It was argued that the plea of the Report for integrating the economic, social, and environmental dimensions would not gain significance. Deployment of the idea of the so-called “social dimension” rightly concerns a fallacy:

It is an amorphous technocratic “black box,” which is for logical reasons separated from the economic and environmental dimensions [which are also relevant for the development] of sustainability … The incessant use of the black box is not merely a minor blemish but a fundamental root problem that brings about a misunderstanding of well-being, as well as societal dynamics and also what could be [an] effective policy response. (IASQ 2012: 4)

The substance of “social dimension” was not theoretically articulated. Therefore, it was devoid of specific meaning. According to the working group, this fallacy covertly paved the way for the subordination of the socioenvironmental and ecological dimension to economic interests. The same misleading fallacy was at play in the positions and misuse of nature and local communities in the economic exploitation of territory by, for example, the oil giants. According to Johanna Bozuwa and Olúfémi Táíwò:

Private oil companies have propped up an ever-failing business on a complex system of national and international government subsidies, all of which function to privatize the benefits of oil and gas production while socializing its financial environmental, and societal costs—making the public pay in tax dollars, human rights abuses, and an unliveable climate. (Bozuwa et al 2021)

From the critical debates regarding the deployment of the “social dimension,” based on SQT and the social quality approach (SQA), a new configuration of four dimensions was designed. Referred to as the third “procedural framework,” it was designed as a distinct framework in addition to the social quality conceptual framework, and the social quality analytical framework. The resulting new configuration has been explained in Working Paper 17 with Figure 3 (IASQ 2019: 56). This figure concerns the procedural framework. The three frameworks, each representing a different level of a single ontological and epistemological approach, are designed to be complementary to each other.

The “conceptual framework” refers to the ontology and is based on an articulate elaboration of, among other concepts, “the social” and the concept of “social quality” itself. The ontological elaborations of “the social” that constitute the foundations of the social quality frameworks are visualized in Figure 2 of Working Paper 17 (IASQ 2019: 49).

The “analytical framework” refers to the processes between three sets of factors that result in a particular level of “social quality.” It is published in the third main book on social quality (Van der Maesen and Walker 2012: 66) and in an extended form in Figure 1 of Working Paper 17 (IASQ 2019: 11). The domains of these three sets of factors concern

  1. (1)the conditional factors, namely, the social quality indicators (socioeconomic security, social cohesion, social inclusion, empowerment and eco-reality): these are analyzed through objectifying methodologies;
  2. (2)the constitutional factors (personal security, social recognition, social responsiveness, personal capacity, and eco-conscience): these are analyzed through subjectively oriented profiles; and
  3. (3)the normative factors (social justice, solidarity, equal value, human dignity, and eco-equilibrium): these are developed through discourse and deployed in the moral judgment of the nature and outcome of processes leading to a particular level of “social quality.” The analytical instruments are used as criteria for the normative factors.

The procedural framework is a distinct addition to the social quality frameworks. It is designed in four dimensions: the sociopolitical and legal dimension, the socioeconomic and financial dimension, the sociocultural and welfare dimension, and the socioenvironmental and ecological dimension. They represent spheres of societal life in which analyses, based on the conceptual and analytical social quality frameworks, may be deployed.

Hereunder a new visualization of the configuration of the three frameworks is presented. It is important to note that this new presentation has emerged from dialogues with the authors and with editorial networks, which have resulted in this thematic issue. This approach reflects the developmental intentions of the editorial board of the IJSQ. Through the dialogical nature of the preparatory work, both the quality of the submitted articles and the quality of the deployed (combination of) frameworks is enhanced.

Figure 4 visualizes how the three frameworks interrelate. In the procedural framework (the four dimensions of societal life), processes in society within and between the dimensions are exposed. Its use reinforces the sensitivity regarding the nature of processes within the same dimension and their mutual reciprocity. The societal processes do change the nature of the factors and their domains, which are identified as analytical architecture. And conversely, the latter equally influences the nature and outcome of the processes in the four dimensions.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Social Quality Configuration of Ontological, Epistemological and Procedural Frameworks

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 11, 1-2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2021.11010201

The ontological assumptions regarding “the social” constitute the theoretical foundation on which the social quality analytical framework is based. This is important to note. The way we look at humans and societies in considering the societal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic implicitly stems from covered ontological notions. Its philosophical points of departure are reflected in SQT. These stretch back to eudaimonic traditions and the Aristotelian conceptions of the “good life,” “moderation,” “reason,” and “justice.” The original emphasis lies on “meaning,” “self-realization,” and the “actualization of human potential.” Its antipode refers to hedonic traditions, which emphasize the nobility of the individual. “Personal freedom,” “self-preservation,” and “self-enhancement” are its core features, stemming from a philosophical tradition encompassing Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Phillips 2006: 32). This human ontology implicitly underlies the prevailing hedonistic psychology and neoliberal assumptions. It runs counter to the ontological assumptions elaborated in SQT, in which humans are conceived as “social beings” (Beck et al. 2001: 309–311). In this thematic issue on the societal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have tried to stimulate the analytical deployment of the three frameworks related to SQT and the SQA. The eudaimonic foundations reveal that, in doing this, the contributors to this issue have also been invited to look at the world through a specific normative lens: a lens that has a strong affinity with eudaimonic traditions. In the analyses and comprehension of situations with high complexity such normative lenses implicitly play decisive roles in what is seen. In this editorial, we have tried to illustrate that the societal impact of COVID-19 is a complex situation that deserves truthful, comprehensive, and ethically sound approaches.

The five distinguished parts of this thematic issue are introduced by short reflections on the deployment of the frameworks, as well as their similarities and differences on a more abstract level. These introductions may be supportive of the critical reading of the eleven articles. In the final editorial, reflections are presented on the practical impact of the conclusions of the articles both at present and what they will likely be in the future. In addition, we will present reflections on the methodological approaches deployed. These may assist the further development of theories and frameworks to be deployed in scientific research of multidimensional complex societal “problematics.” In this vein, we will discuss some of the ideas underpinning this IJSQ thematic issue dedicated to the societal effects of COVID-19 pandemic around the world in connection with the current global discourse on climate change post-COP26. We will argue that the reciprocal interrelationships between the “symbolic world of humans” and the “material world of nature” are the essence of what is at issue. In the wake of the substance of the eleven articles, we present a few introductory considerations regarding the intersections between the dimensions and the relationships between humanity and nature.

References

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    Figure 1.

    Cumulative Confirmed COVID-19 Cases per Million People for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2.

    Cumulative Confirmed COVID-19 Deaths per Million People for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

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    Figure 3.

    Cumulative Confirmed Percentage of the Population Having Received Full Vaccination for the Eleven Countries Represented in This Issue, May 2020 – October 2021 (Source: ourworldindata.org)

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    Figure 4.

    Social Quality Configuration of Ontological, Epistemological and Procedural Frameworks

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