"Numerous COVID-standard operating procedures (SOPs) are displayed in public places to regulate our physical and social activities which ultimately help in stopping the spread of the virus. However, in doing so, the outbreak has exerted a profound influence on the organization and practice of our social lives."
The world is facing a global health crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is “attacking human societies at their core: taking lives, spreading human sufferings, and upending people’s lives. But it is much more than a health crisis. It is a human, economic and social crisis” (UN, 2021). It has caused an unprecedented shift in our lifestyles worldwide so much so that it has transformed the very basic notion of humankind as ‘social beings’. Consequently, it has opened “an archive of insights related to the physical sense of our experience as social beings” (Reddy, 2020).
Human beings are social in nature; therefore, they rely on interaction and relations with fellow humans. For Aristotle, anyone who “is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Interpersonal relationships are an integral part of human civilization since they need “the acceptance, presence, and comfort of others around them to feel psychologically and socially well” (Aristotle, 328 B.C., as cited in Dugatkin, 2000). These social connections have become a significant aspect of human existence for many years. In the pre-COVID-19 era, our social identity was dependent on our relationships with fellow humans, which includes the freedom to move and interact with one another. However, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, we are advised “to disengage (and by the extension to be disembodied) from our social environments” (Reddy, 2020).
In Pakistan, public signage is commonly practiced as an appealing and convenient canvas for the sign producers to communicate with their intended audience. Numerous COVID-standard operating procedures (SOPs) are displayed in public places to regulate our physical and social activities which ultimately help in stopping the spread of the virus. However, in doing so, the outbreak has exerted a profound influence on the organization and practice of our social lives. Keeping in view the social impacts of the virus, this paper aims at exploring the following research questions.
What themes of social restrictions are reflected in the Covidoscape of Pakistan’s multilingual twin cities (Islamabad and Rawalpindi)?
How do these restrictions, in turn, affect the social identity of the intended audience?
Methodologically, we followed a constructivist-interpretive paradigm within qualitative research design to analyze a sample of 100 COVID-19-related public signs. We coded the data in NVIVO 12 Pro into themes and subthemes.
(Re)defining Our Social Identity
To stop the spread of the virus, countries around the globe have come up with certain SOPs, for instance, wearing a mask, maintaining social or physical distancing, staying in one’s social bubble, washing hands, and avoiding human contact, etc. In the process, we are not only subjected to abandon our normal social routine, but also advised to adopt a new set of social behaviours. Consequently, COVID-19 restrictions have compelled us to (re)define our social identity as humans.
Figure 1: "The model citizen" (sign photographed at a university in Islamabad, Pakistan)
Figure 1 is a perfect example of how our social identity has been altered during the COVID-19 outbreak. The sign is intended to encourage the public to wear a face mask. Unlike the normal routine where a ‘model citizen’ would mean someone who obeys the laws of the country and practices good deeds and therefore serves as a role model for others, the expression ‘The model citizen’ here refers to someone who practices COVID-19 SOPs i.e., wearing a face mask. This is, in fact, an instance of the redefined form of our social identity during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Figure 2 illustrates how the Coronavirus vaccination has been commodified in the neoliberal world. These images are taken from the outlet of a famous Pakistani fashion and lifestyle brand Khaadi. The images on the extreme left and in the centre read ‘vaccinated’ and ‘#IamVACCINATED’ respectively. In fact, these messages are imprinted on the specially designed shirts provided by the brand for its staff members. The image on the extreme right reads ‘Attention! ALL OF OUR STAFF HAS RECEIVED THE COVID-19 VACCINE.’ These messages show how vaccination acts a persuasive tool in the neoliberal market during the COVID-19 era
Figure 2: '#IamVACCINATED' (Signs photographed in a shopping mall in Islamabad, Pakistan)
The three images in Figure 3 read ‘CHILDREN UNDER 12 & ELDERLY ABOVE 70 WILL NOT BE ALLOWED’, ‘NO ENTRY FOR ANYONE AGED UNDER 12 & OVER 60’, and ‘CHILDREN UNDER 12 AND PEOPLE ABOVE 50 YEARS OLD ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER THE BAKERY’ respectively. Though these messages are intended to keep our vulnerable age groups safe, they nevertheless show ‘ageism’. Thus, restraining someone merely based on age brings forth how social identities are played out in the Covidoscape of Pakistan.
Figure 3: 'Vulnerable age groups' (Signs from three shops in Islamabad, Pakistan)
Without denying the importance of the Covidoscape in containing the virus, the study identified that COVID-19 is not merely a health crisis but also social and psychological one. On the one hand, these restrictions have proven to be blessings in disguise for providing new opportunities and ways of realigning to a new normal i.e., work from home, online facilities, and new business opportunities. On the other hand, we, being a social species, “are locked in the midst of a struggle to regain our social health, an innate human desire to reconnect with life, and with the social groups that give meaning to our identification and relationships in the world” (Reddy, 2020). In either case, COVID-19 is not just purely a medical pandemic – it is also a social phenomenon whose uncertainty continues to disrupt our social order and risks shaping our social and public identity.
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