Catalyst of Social Change

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not melioration. For every thing that is given something is taken.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the field of Chemistry, some reactions require energy from an outside source due to an energy difference between the products and reactants. In other words, a catalyst is needed in order for the reaction to proceed to the end in the intended direction. Likewise, sometimes social changes require a catalyst to bring the change to fruition, and ultimately completion.

Over the years there have been numerous efforts to promote the inclusion and diversity of minority populations in the United States. Diversity clubs at schools, diversity committees in corporations, nonprofit organizations pushing for reform, and lots of financial resources directed at inequities had been occurring in segregated silos. Americans were somewhat educated on the topic and minor progress had been made, but it took a catalyst to drive the transformation of structural inequality to meaningful change.

The coupling of cabin fever caused by quarantining during the pandemic and a few new instances of police brutality caught on video, against both whites and blacks, physically moved people to the streets. People fought for their lives in a whole new way. Not only were Americans protecting themselves against the virus by wearing a mask, they were simultaneously protecting themselves against inequalities. They did this by protesting and demanding change from the government that was supposed to be acting in the best interest of the people they served.

This same government was also talking about using cellular location data to enforce travel restrictions and monitor adherence to lockdown orders. These times really made people think, as a collective, where we stood regarding government control and the encroachment of our human rights. This abstract, man-made institution that we call the government had been gaining power and remained increasingly unchecked. Americans needed to take a stance on how much power they believed the government should have.

Another transformation catalyzed by the pandemic was telecommunication, specifically telecommuting and telehealth. Telecommuting, or working from home, had been slowly gaining traction in corporate America over the past decade. As company leaders sought to streamline operational budgets, decreasing physical real estate was an easy way to do this. Knowledge workers are conducive for working from home since they work with ideas and information rather than machines.

With the many advances in cybersecurity and software, working from home was able to rapidly scale and be widely adopted like never before. American society took a hard look at telecommuting and decided it was a viable option under the current climate. The increase in telecommuting caused the dissolution of the societal status of living in a city center. As businesses became vacant and crowds were prohibited, gone were the days of glamorous city living. The social distancing orders forced companies to accelerate the adoption of working from home.

In my second book Contentious Collaborations and Societal Shifts, I discuss the advent of telemedicine. In response to the global pandemic, the utilization of telehealth was accelerated. During the year 2019, only 8% of Americans reported using telemedicine at least once. In June 2020, 95% of patient visits were done via telemedicine. Routine checkups and less complicated ailments were treated via teleconferencing technologies in order to keep waiting room usage low in an effort to prevent viral transmission.

In the past, there were lots of bureaucratic, overly cautious red-tape that stalled the wide adoption of telehealth. Telehealth became increasingly urgent in responding to the public health crisis. The increased consumer awareness and willingness to change allowed previous concerns of privacy and debates about provider reimbursement to subside.

Overdue deregulation was not only seen in telehealth, it was seen all across the manufacturing and healthcare landscapes too. Manufacturers were able to sell N95 masks produced for commercial use to medical facilities even if they were past their expiration date. Automobile companies were able to manufacture ventilators. Many states allowed out of state healthcare workers to practice in their states. These efforts mitigated many critical shortages and will likely linger beyond the pandemic.

The pandemic was a catalyst for innovation in general. Technologies previously stuck in the proof of concept stage were deployed to the marketplace. Smart devices collected patient data, epidemiologic data, and medical research data. They also disinfected surfaces, cooked food, and delivered packages. Innovation was thrust to the front lines to help fight the pandemic.

It is customary to greet fellow Americans via a handshake. A few prominent celebrities had publicly rebelled against this custom for many years. The shaking of hands had become so ingrained in the American way of life that not engaging in a handshake was considered fringe behavior. Many public health officials had previously spoken out against this custom due to its ability to rapidly and effectively spread disease.

The coronavirus brought this issue to light once again. As a collective, America was advised to not shake hands anymore. An alternative wasn’t immediately introduced, so Americans started experimenting with fist bumps, air hugs, air high fives, and elbow bumps. It was pretty comical at first – that comedic relief was absolutely welcomed. It took some time to get comfortable suppressing the reflex to offer one’s hand in a handshake, but this change was necessary in the time of a pandemic, and will likely continue long after the pandemic.

Religious institutions were no exception to adapting during the coronavirus. Church congregations are by definition: groups of people. For numerous weeks in multiple states, such gatherings were prohibited. When phased reopenings started to happen, groups were usually limited to “50% capacity” or “no more than 10 people”. In addition to the virus thriving in large gatherings of people, it also manifested harsh symptoms amongst the elderly population. Church congregations check both of these boxes.

Church followers were forced to reexamine what their definition of Church was. Certainly God exists outside the four walls of a Church. God cannot be confined to the man-made notion of religion. The building and the congregation are simply a means to worship, they are not the only way to worship. Church leaders had to reinvent how they delivered their message. People were called to lessen their attachment to rituals, objects, holy obligations, and religious “duties”. It took a pandemic for some people to realize that they are children of God, not children of The Church. The biological pandemic forced the recognition of the existing soul pandemic.

Followers of Islam complete a pilgrimage, at least once in a lifetime, from Mecca to Arafat (about 5.5 miles). This pilgrimage (the hajj) is the final pillar of the central elements of Islam. About 2 million people participate in this tradition every year. The hajj is a ritualistic display of unity among all Muslims – rich, poor, men, women, Iraqi, Indonesian, American, etc. It’s a critical means of spreading the collective message of Islam to other areas of the world. 

The pilgrimage provides a large, sudden influx of tourists and a huge injection of economic benefit to the area. Followers stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and consume essential utilities like gas and electricity. The hajj brings followers back to the roots of the religion and inspires them to carry the message of Islam. This major void in the Islamic religious experience forced followers to reexamine the importance and meaning that is placed on this tradition.

The pandemic accelerated the existing extinction cadence of brick-and-mortar stores, print media, and movie theaters. Brick-and-mortar stores were clinging to life support as they competed with e-commerce. When the virus came and choked the life out of the stores, they were forced to declare bankruptcy and close. Similarly, print media and the movie theater businesses had been threatened by digital media and streaming services respectively.

The coronavirus closed these industries that heavily resisted change. These examples of resisting change, succumbing to man-made institutions, and closing corporations demonstrate America’s great capacity for meaningless suffering. Somehow, initiatives slow to a screeching halt when it comes time to pushing them across the finish line. Inaction, or lack of meaningful action, unnecessarily prolonged the suffering of citizens.

How much damage and suffering does it take to effectuate meaningful change? Why does political tribalism have such a grip on the democracy of this nation? Why can we rapidly change for the coronavirus, but we cannot unify against other dire threats to humanity? Common sense, meaningful reform can make a massive impact if we just listen to each other and act. It is commonly said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” In these times, necessity was the mother of acceleration.