“Corona taught me a lesson in modesty”

Catrin Finkenauer about long term consequences of COVID-19

Since mid-March, not an hour goes by without you reading, hearing or seeing something about corona. Many will have had more than enough of this by now. But COVID-19 is among us and we have no choice but to deal with it. Now the number of infections is going down and the government measures are eased, the question arises: what does this pandemic mean for our future? Will the world change drastically? In this series, scientists of Utrecht University outline their expectations. 

To what extent will corona have consequences for how we arrange our work in the upcoming years? Is this crisis good or bad news for the climate, the economy and our interaction with animals in the long run? Will the virus result in permanent changes to our social interactions and will it possibly lead to sustainable reforms in education, healthcare and urban and regional  planning?

Catrin Finkenauer

In the second part of this series, Catrin Finkenauer, Professor of Youth Studies and scientific director of the university-wide Strategic Theme Dynamics of Youth, shares her thoughts about the (long-term) effects of corona for young people and for social interaction.

Catrin Finkenauer: “When you asked me what I think the world will look like after corona, I immediately thought: there is no world after corona. Like with the flu (but differently) we will have to learn to live in a world with corona. Nobody can properly oversee what that means exactly. And that is an odd feeling for a scientist, as it's our task and purpose to evaluate scenarios and hypotheses based on their probabilities.  

In that regard, corona throws a spanner in the works. Because we know relatively little about events that affect the entire world. We could use (natural) disasters, wars, or large-scale outbreaks of diseases like Ebolavirus as analogies. But you can feel in your gut that these comparisons largely don't add up and the uncertainty of our predictions remains enormous. Potential game changers such as the development of a vaccine can undo scenarios. There is also the possibility of a vaccine that is limited in effectiveness or availability.

To me as a researcher, it's a unusual and wondrous time that but also makes me curious about what life with corona will look like.”

If you’d have to make an assessment: which long-term consequences of corona would you see happening among young people? 
“Research has shown that the social environment (family, neighbourhood, school, society, laws) codetermine how young individuals develop. When vulnerable children grow up in loving families, for instance, they can be protected from the development of problems. Many problems that adults experience, have come from what happened during their childhoods. This makes it more important than ever to understand what the lives of babies, children, adolescents and young adults look like. What are their sources of energy and motivations? Which problems will they run into and what is the best way to respond to that?

But the interaction of protecting - and risk factors in the social environment and in young people themselves (genetic, personality), is extremely complex. So we should do a lot more research in order to get a good idea of how (the restrictions because of) corona will influence young peoples' development in the long run. I'm already looking forward to the insights that research into these questions will yield.”

Do you think our social behaviour will change permanently?
“On an evolutionary level, we are programmed in a way that we instinctively avoid so-called pathogens or their sources. Right now, we see other people as a source of infection that we must avoid. I expect that this instinctive reaction will disappear soon among people who are close to each other, but I wonder if this will also be the case among strangers. And this does affect you. For instance, my heart breaks when someone I don't know, passes me in a large circle. I then get the signal that they don't trust me and see me as a threat.”

Which lessons can we learn from corona?
“My own research is focused on the importance of having long-term, harmonious relationships for the well-being of people. Seeing each other, talking to each other, (physical) contact; the importance has become even clearer. Nothing's more pleasant than giving someone a hug for comfort or to show happiness, especially in situations where words don't suffice. But corona keeps or kept us from going to church and festivals, school and work, and we couldn't (physically) support each other in stressful situations such as disease and funerals.

I hope that people cherish the importance of contact and that we'll invest more in skills for the benefit of having social relationships and maintaining them. I also hope that the countless initiatives that people spontaneously develop in order to help each other continue to exist, also when the restrictions are lifted even further.”

Finally, when it comes to research, we have to (interdisciplinarily) join our forces more, share data, exchange information and collaborate. Fortunately, our movements through the open science community are boosted at Utrecht University and worldwide.”

Click on the banner for the first episode of the series 'The world after/with corona' with Maarten Hajer.