Law and Politics

Start Free Trial

What are the manifest functions and latent functions of Covid-19

COVID-19 has impacted society in countless ways, some that are to be logically expected, and others that are less obvious. Manifest functions, or in this case, dysfunctions, are those we would expect- increased illness, death, and hospitalization. Some latent, or unintended, consequences include economic setbacks and increased disparities in healthcare and education. One positive latent function may be reduced CO2 emissions as people consume and travel less.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This question is difficult to answer because COVID-19 is a relatively recent issue we are facing in society. It also came on suddenly, so most people have focused on providing immediate relief in the midst of the pandemic rather than studying its sociological implications. Sociologists will no doubt be studying this pandemic and the ways it has irrevocably changed our society for decades to come. However, there are a few manifest and latent functions that we can identify from our current observations.

Manifest functions are the intended or expected consequences of a given sociological issue. This can be a system, a law, a policy, or in our case, a pandemic. The words "intended" and "function" are a bit misleading because no one wanted the pandemic to happen, and its consequences are mostly negative; the term dysfunction might be more appropriate. However, there are consequences that people logically assume would happen given the circumstances. What happens when there is a novel virus that no one has natural immunity to? They get sick. What happens when people get sick? Some develop complications and need urgent medical care or hospitalization, and unfortunately many don't make it. What happens when lots of people need to go to the hospital at the same time? Hospitals get overwhelmed. This is why early responses to COVID-19 focused so heavily on slowing the spread of the virus through social distancing and mass testing and equipping hospitals with the necessary medical supplies like ventilators, respirators, and personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

However, as people radically altered their way of life to slow the spread of the virus, some latent, or less obvious, consequences have arisen. These consequences are directly related to but not caused by the virus in the way that sickness and death are. Let's first consider the economy. Most states enacted some kind of "stay at home order" to encourage social distancing during the early weeks and months of the pandemic. As a result, many businesses had to close or adjust their business models because people were no longer able to shop/eat/etc. in person. Because businesses were making less revenue, many had to lay off or furlough their employees. When people aren't getting a regular salary, they have less money to spend, so business continue making less revenue ... the cycle goes on and on.

The pandemic has also revealed many disparities that already existed in our society, especially in areas like healthcare and education. Anyone can get COVID-19, but not everyone has the same experience in terms of their susceptibility to the virus and their access to care. For example, a study by the CDC found that 33% of patients hospitalized for COVID in a given sample were African American, even though African Americans made up only 18% of the sample population. The virus doesn't discriminate based on race, so we have to look at deeply embedded social patterns to understand why this is the case. African Americans and other racial minorities are more likely to live in densely populated areas or work in "critical" professions that require considerable interaction with the public; this increases their chance of contracting the virus. Additionally, African-Americans tend to live farther from hospitals and are more likely to be uninsured, which makes it more difficult to access treatment and avoid complications from the virus. Finally, because many doctors are not trained to examine their implicit biases, some may not believe African Americans who prevent with COVID-19 symptoms and send them home until their cases become severe. (Source: COVID-19 and Racial and Ethnic Minorities). These patterns have forced us to confront the reality that while less people may openly harbor prejudices towards minority groups, systemic racism is still a major issue in our society.

The same is true of disparities in education, though in a less direct way. There is already a disparity in academic achievement between people of lower socioeconomic status and their more affluent counterparts, but they have become more pronounced during the pandemic. Many schools across the country closed for the remainder of the year due to the virus. As a result, schools were forced to make an abrupt transition to remote learning through online platforms. However, many families don't have reliable access to WiFi, computers, or the other tools needed for remote learning. Additionally, many working class people still had to go to work, meaning they could not stay home to support their children with online learning the way more affluent parents could. This responsibility might then fall on older siblings who are students themselves and may then fall behind in their own schooling. Finally, many students receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch at school. Many schools continued these services, but students/families would need reliable transportation to access them. When coupled with the fact that many parents lost income due to reduced hours/layoffs at work, food insecurity became a major issue.

All this sounds like bad news, but there was one positive latent function of the pandemic: environmental restoration. Fuel and jet emissions increased drastically as people traveled less by car and plane. One scientist estimated that carbon dioxide emissions, which are responsible for climate change, have dropped by as much as 17%. (Source: Global Emissions Dropped...). You may have also seen pictures on the internet of clearer canals in Venice, greater visibility of the Himalayan mountains in India, etc. These gains are likely temporary, but they do show that it is possible to scale back human impact on the environment and reduce the mass consumption that is so environmentally harmful.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team