Sociological perspective on the Coronavirus Outbreak – Strong and Beck

PHILIP STRONGEPIDEMIC PSYCHOLOGY

Philip Strong coined the term “epidemic psychology” as he sought to identify a model for understanding people and societies reactions in the wake of the AIDS/HIV crisis. Philip Strong’s “epidemic psychology” in action is characterized by “plagues of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma”, along with “mass outbreaks of moral controversy, potential solutions and personal conversion to the many different causes which spring up”. Multiple factors are at work here; Strong’s model divides epidemic psychology into three categories of fear, explanation and action.

Fear

The emotion of fear is innate to our psyche and is, in fact, part of our survival instinct. Fear typically accompanies entropy, the absence of familiarity. Faced with a viral outbreak, this emergence of fear is largely because it’s impossible to identify a carrier at first glance; an unidentified virus only amplifies this reaction. Perhaps it’s more fitting to call this epidemic one of suspicion. The development of stigma and urban superstition is often a natural consequence of this state of mind.

For some, fear and suspicion can rise to the level of irrationality. In some cases, individuals can believe they have the disease or illness when there are no facts to support it. This irrationality may be fueled in some parts of the world by the worldview that accepts magic and the unexplainable to be as legitimate as the empirical.

Explanation

An outbreak of any kind always comes with a flurry of opinions. Be it from government agencies, the media, community leaders or even religious figureheads, any attempt to understand the scope and consequences of the outbreak is the first step towards getting the situation under control. Unless the virus in question is well-documented, a single unified directive will be rare. More often than not, a litany of voices offers differing opinions and advice in an attempt to assuage public concerns. People may find it hard to understand the facts of the outbreak at this point, which can result in collective disorientation. Such confusion often sees people swinging from one state of mind to another.

The more quickly we can move through this phase, the more quickly we can get to a phase of interacting with the problem in a meaningful way and the less likely we are to harm relationships within our communities.

Action & solutions

The epidemic of action is the most easily identifiable due to its physical manifestation. The AIDS pandemic resulted in the demonisation of homosexuality and its associated communities and subcultures. Meanwhile, the H5N1 influenza outbreak saw the mass culling of chickens in Hunan, China. This time, lock downs, mass quarantines, supermarkets packed with people preparing for doomsday scenarios and violent acts of discrimination have made headlines the world over. More consequential disruptions tend to produce more extreme reactions, and the culture of blame has certainly played a heavy hand in all these instances.

Effect of disease on social systems

Our daily lives are ordered by innumerable behaviours and actions that happen on auto-pilot (Strong). Many of these auto-pilot behaviours are related to social interactions and hygiene. In India, these are made visible with the initiatives by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and are closely related to generating a belief in the goodwill or positive intentions of friends and neighbours to live in harmony. When disease arrives, the essential positive assumptions are replaced with the parallel epidemic of fear and suspicion. From a sociological perspective, we humans then have the capacity to share those fears and suspicions through language to others. This phenomenon is heightened in the era of globalization; social media makes it easier and faster, and harder to contain. It is interesting to note that Facebook and other media platforms were not a part of the response to SARS.

Medical and mental health professionals have long known the foundational positive impact of social support in difficult times. It presents a unique challenge in the case of disease, where the very person who needs your connection and support may also be the person that is the carrier of the looming catastrophe.

Impact of media on mental health

Yotam Ophir from the University of Buffalo has studied the content of news information during the outbreaks of infectious disease. He concluded that the media does not generally provide the kinds of information that is most helpful. He identified three types of information found in the reporting of disease: scientific information, social stories, and pandemic themes—issues related to preventing the spread. Often the news is focused on the human-interest stories—and often the extreme behaviours (Lu, 2015), but is lacking in the information needed for the public to make fact informed decisions. Ophir finds that during the course of an outbreak such as Coronavirus, the public needs simple and clear information about the risks and healthy ways to cope. On average, however, in his study, only one in five articles included coping information. Unfortunately, information about diseases without coping information can result in an increase in emotional distress and a feeling of not being able to take steps to protect oneself (Ophir, 2015).

Suggestions for coping & finding a middle path

  • A clearer understanding of how we as individuals and societies are affected by a disease crisis can lead us to a better understanding of how to take care of ourselves, and prevent a biological epidemic from becoming a mental health epidemic. The following, though not exhaustive, provide some ideas for effectively coping.
  • Recognize that the tasks of daily living take more energy when it takes place against the backdrop of an epidemic. Figure out what you can let go or postpone some things and spend more time in self-care.
  • Identify what can be controlled and implement measures to control them. Identify things that can’t be controlled and let those things go.
  • Recognize when our thinking is leaning towards a natural tendency to catastrophize and find a measured response the acknowledges the facts. For example, “It is possible I could get the virus, but it is not probable.”
  • Assert control where it will be useful such as routinizing new social patterns of washing hands, keeping hands from touching our faces and keeping a measured distance from others.
  • Engage in activities that develop our equanimity (calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation (Oxford)), such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.
  • Turn off screens for several hours a day to engage in exercise, reading or other pleasurable hobbies.
  • Increase your connection with loved ones by spending time together and expressing affection.
  • Find support with a mentor, wise friend, medical or mental health practitioner if you find that concerns about the virus are interfering with your ability to engage in the responsibilities of daily life.
  • Look for opportunities to engage in “random acts of kindness” that will increase our own positive feelings as well as strengthen the social fabric that binds us together as a community in India.
  • Be clear about the type of media reports you are consuming. Media reports without clear messages about how to protect yourself will increase anxiety.
  • Listen to information provided by friends and family and share information with others discerningly. Is it a fact? What is the source? Is it helpful or anxiety-provoking?

When spending time getting informed about the Coronavirus be sure to spend more time on official sites that provide reliable information about risk and guidance on coping.

ULRICH BECK – RISK SOCIETY

The COVID-19 crisis, which began in China, has hit the rest of the world with full force. We are witnessing closed schools and universities, closed shops and museums and empty streets. International tourism and parts of the production has come to a halt. Economists agree that the crisis will have far-reaching effects on the global economy.

From a social science perspective, the question arises as to the social and political impact of the crisis on our societies. In the following, we analyze the current crisis with Ulrich Beck’s concept of risk society in the second modernity, published shortly before the 1986 Chernobyl atomic disaster, to uncover some of these implications.

The second modernity refers to the postmodern period, starting after the mid-1970s, when in advanced industrial societies the tertiary sector became the dominant one and the economic and cultural trends of globalization began to transform national economies and create a global market with strong interdependencies and a sharp increase in intercultural contacts, both of which blurred national boundaries. 

One of the main theses within this concept, however, is that of risk production. These risks are man-made and endanger our entire civilization because they do not stop at national borders, such as the nuclear fallout which, in the case of Chernobyl, was able to cross even the “Iron Curtain” between East and West. The virus did not stop at national borders either. Now, WHO has officially classified the current crisis as a pandemic that has spread over a large region and several continents.

In contrast to modernity, in which class differences played an important role, in the risk society all people are equally affected by these risks. According to Beck, private escape routes and compensation possibilities are shrinking, which we are also observing in the current crisis. For example, as we now know, a possible escape from Japan to Europe would not have been a good idea. In the meantime, Europe has closed its borders; air traffic is severely restricted, as is public transport. It is currently virtually impossible to escape the virus from Europe, even if the state of emergency is much easier to endure in a villa with a view than in a cramped rented flat without a balcony.

According to Beck, the assessment of risks is difficult because the discussion is being held almost exclusively in scientific categories and those affected by risks are therefore at the mercy of the experts’ judgment, mistakes, and controversies. Risks and their consequences are therefore particularly open to interpretation. This is evident in the current crisis. Questions such as the danger of the virus, the interpretation of the death rate or the question of why the number of deaths in Italy is so high compared to the infection rate can only be answered by experts. The average citizen is dependent on them for his or her assessment. Moreover, misinformation about the extent, origin and various other aspects of the disease thrive.

The role of the media is therefore important. Especially in a crisis, the media should report responsibly on facts and reflect different opinions in order to contribute to the formation of public opinion. However, there is a symbiotic relationship between crises and the media. With the outbreak of a crisis, sales figures increase, and the more sensational the reporting on the crisis, the greater the attention. Such selfish reporting, however, fuels the mood of crisis in the population and leads to hamster purchases. In Japan, for example, face masks were sold out for days. In Germany, toilet paper has disappeared from the shelves, although the government has declared in both cases that there is no shortage at all. On the internet, fake news is spreading at breakneck speed, contributing to further uncertainty among the population. These days, “The Plague” by Albert Camus has become the best-selling book in Europe.

However, the most important aspect of the risk society concerns democracy itself. According to Beck, the risk society is a “disaster society” in which the state of emergency threatens to become the norm. Thus, the prevention and management of disasters can be accompanied by a reorganization of power and responsibility. The political system faces the dilemma of either failing because of the danger or ignoring basic democratic principles through authoritarian action. The risk society tends towards “legitimate totalitarianism” based on the right to “prevent the worst.”

During the current crisis we see that all democratic states have taken far-reaching and drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In this respect, the countries of Europe go far beyond Japan and the measures taken there. For example, the freedom of assembly has been abolished and some states, such as Italy and Spain, have even imposed a curfew for weeks and other countries are following suit. Elections, including in associations and societies, have been postponed, which means that fundamental democratic rights have been suspended, albeit with the consent of the citizens. The question is, however, how long the approval of the people will last. Much will, therefore, depend on whether the principle of “necessity and proportionality” is respected, whether the population trusts its political leadership and whether the interests justifying the measures are legitimate.

In all countries, the virus has brought cultural and political life to a standstill, and social contacts are either severely restricted or prohibited. The “responsible citizen”, as Beck imagines him to be, is therefore indispensable to prevent a possible autocratization of our societies. For autocratic regimes, this is, in any case, a good opportunity to suppress possible protests and put public opinion in their place.

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