19 May 2021

The Corona crisis puts social cohesion to the test

The first "Frankfurt Interdisciplinary Live Debate" looks at solidarity in times of Covid-19 and beyond – and reveals some lines of conflict

With the Corona pandemic, humanity is experiencing a crisis in which the concept of solidarity is booming. Much invoked both politically and socially, it involves the willingness of each individual to stand up for a collective to which he or she feels connected. Particularly in times of crisis, this entails several burdens and costs that are not equally distributed. This in turn gives rise to contradictions in solidarity, the acute and long-term consequences of which were discussed at the first interdisciplinary “Frankfurt Live Debate”. 

Initially launched as a blog with the onset of the Corona pandemic in spring 2020, the academic exchange of the “Frankfurt Interdisciplinary Debate” will now continue as a series of panel discussions jointly organized by the Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), the Research Centre of Goethe University Frankfurt “Normative Orders”, and the Cluster of Excellence “Cardio-Pulmonary Institute” (CPI). The very first event of this kind marked the debate on the “Future of Solidarity”, which was discussed by a five-member panel moderated by radio journalist Doris Renck on 12 May 2021. 

In his opening statement, Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy at Goethe University and spokesman for “Normative Orders”, explained that crises are high times of solidarity, in which the strength of individual solidarity with others becomes apparent. “The Corona crisis is undoubtedly such a test”, he said. However, solidarity is often followed by a shadow of unsolidarity. No society can truly call itself solidary if it ignores the plight of others. There is no natural definition of solidarity, but there are reflexes with which people react to crises. It is worrying that the corona pandemic has triggered a global crisis, “but at the same time the reflexes of wanting to save oneself nationally are very strong,” Forst continued. Crises must be responded to in transnational action, he added. 

Internal solidarity in distinction from other groups 

Global mindfulness can indeed be reproduced, agreed HSFK director Nicole Deitelhoff. Especially since individuals and society owe their mindfulness not only to themselves and the nation state, but also beyond. However, the political scientist countered on the connection between solidarity and crises: "We see a heyday of calls for solidarity, of appeals, but not necessarily a heyday of solidarity as such, we usually have that at the beginning of crises." In such a situation, the sense of community always manifests itself more as internal solidarity. “We are primarily in solidarity with those we are close to, and thus distinguish ourselves from other groups,” she said. 

What is most contradictory, she continued, is that solidarity is not felt that way where it is most needed and is perceived to be very strong where it is least needed. “In the upper socioeconomic strata, which have fewer problems with the consequences of the pandemic, the feeling is that solidarity has tended to increase over time,” Deitelhoff said, “if we look in the lower socioeconomic strata, we see exactly the opposite." Thus, solidarity is not something that can be decreed from above or enforced by law. 

The lawyer Klaus Günther focused on the complicated relationship between solidarity and law and spoke in this context of “joint and several liability”. Being able to minimize risks through joint action is an advantage of solidarity. However, this “cannot be demanded at any price, but only if it is reasonable,” Günther said. For a legal system, this is only possible to a limited extent, especially since this limit cannot be set absolutely. “Germany’s federal emergency brake shows that certain courses of action can be enforced,” Günther continued. In contrast, overall social solidarity is based on voluntariness, “not only when people have to fear sanctions,” he said. 

“How far is solidarity different from self-interest?” 

The fact that the health care system in Germany is still functioning is, for example, an expression of a tremendous effort based on a large community of solidarity, Günther continued. In particular, he pointed out, the future would bring problems of consideration, such as whether more money should flow into the health care system while being diverted to other areas. 

“Research is expensive,” interjected natural scientist and CPI spokesperson Stefanie Dimmeler, explaining the importance of patents such as those for vaccines, whose temporary release has recently been the subject of international dispute. On this point, other ways of showing solidarity would have to be found, such as through fundraising campaigns combined with cheaper issuance of vaccines. It is unrealistic to believe that highly developed technologies such as vaccine production can be developed at any location, she said. To be better positioned for future crises, “we need better data bases,” Dimmeler emphasized. For example, there is still too little information on whether the risk of corona infection in a hotel or restaurant is really that high. Data collection in Germany is still approached on a small scale, “we need to think more globally,” she said. 

SAFE Director Jan Krahnen explained that cross-border action must also be measured by its ability to generate collective goods. The emergence of such goods, he said, is always linked to the question: “How far is solidarity different from self-interest?” To be sure, the most cost-efficient path through the crisis is said to be solidarity. But in order to pay for the enormous investments required to achieve it and to master the difficult production of public goods, it takes not only smart process design, but also “smart self-interest,” Krahnen said. With the next crises coming as unexpectedly and violently as the corona pandemic, the ability to act creatively in the face of maximum uncertainty needs to be optimized: “We need to be agile, fast, innovative and exploratory.” 

Rewatch the video of the debate here (in German language only)