Editorial: Man is a social being, and Covid-19 won’t change that

Last Updated on Friday, 18 June, 2021 at 11:42 am by Andre Camilleri

Over the last year and a half, we have oscillated from fear to feeling au fait with the pandemic situation, or perhaps we are just learning to live with the virus. However, in the last week, we have seen pictures of crowds violating rules, flocking to key areas, and even throwing caution to the wind with celebrating the village festa.

There is, however, something else highly appealing about going to these places, and it’s the very thing that threatens to worsen the pandemic, other people.

It seems that we humans just can’t stay away from one another. This isn’t an issue exclusive to the Maltese islands. In the countries which experienced a full lockdown like Italy, thousands were fined for meeting up with others when forbidden to do so.

The desire to be physically near others is deeply ingrained within human nature, especially within our Mediterranean culture. More precisely, we humans, or rather our ancestor species, have been social creatures since the days of the Stone Age. For example, many studies have shown that hunter-gatherers formed “bands” as they found it more efficient to find enough food for survival through joint efforts. They also found strength in numbers, fending off threats, whether animal or human, more effectively as a group.

Over a long evolutionary process, humans have created highly sophisticated societies in which we cooperate to survive and better our lives, countless studies show. Today, we know having consensual physical contact with other people and enjoying the company of others in person releases a variety of chemicals within the brain and body, such as the endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin, which essentially give us feelings of happiness and even love.

This is precisely why, when we go to a large festival or a football match, it’s not just the athletes or the musicians that give us that sense of euphoria. Being with a lot of other people adds to the kick. But, of course, not everyone loves crowds and this does not excuse reckless behaviour or putting others in jeopardy.

Going back in our hunter-gatherer days, one person or family may have been responsible for finding food, cooking it, building a home and making clothes. Now we rely on other people from all over the world, with their own sets of knowledge and skills, to carry out different functions essential to surviving. Michael Muthukrishna, an assistant professor of Economic Psychology with the London School of Economics and Political Science, recently explained this concept wonderfully:

“Our society is such that we have a division of labour and a more complex whole world than even the smartest among us could possibly understand. Each of us understands a small sliver of the world, and the rest is socially acquired,” he said.

“It’s what we call the illusion of explanatory depths, we assume we understand how the world works, but really we have a very poor understanding of most things. So, we’re happy to trust in the people who do. For example, you believe in germs. You might have seen them under a microscope, but really you believe in it because you trust people that know that germs exist, even though you don’t actually have access to that information.”

It would seem fighting the need to be around one another is, in essence, fighting an innate human instinct, but if we are to mute the virus, it’s a battle we must keep fighting.

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