Over the last months, the world society is confronted with the emergence and the rapid spread of a certain type of a coronavirus – COVID-19. Certainly, this is not the first infectious disease that turned into a pandemic and also not the first one to turn into a global pandemic. However, it is the first global pandemic with an above-average mortality rate that occurred in the globalised age. These are a lot of modifiers to a virus, but this specific combination of factors led to a worldwide confusion – both on the political and societal levels. Many countries imposed full or partial lockdowns and/or require citizens to wear face masks to contain the spread, while some countries did not take the disease seriously and did not introduced containing measures.
Now, the recent development triggered great uncertainties. On the one hand, does the ordinary politician and citizen know little to nothing about the spread and effects of viruses. Because of the general mental distance to the realm of virology and biology as a whole, politicians and citizens are equally reluctant to rely on sources, especially when there are conflicting results from different sources. Further, the recent developments led us to think about a completely new topic, which makes opinion-building extremely difficult. On a daily basis, we encounter news related to politics, society, entertainment, fashion, sports etc. – all aspects of life we can make sense of. For example, if you have never heard about the Azerbaycan-Armenia conflict, there are some aspects you connect to the words. Maybe you are a Christian and have heard about Armenia being one of the oldest Christian societies, which makes you automatically rather sympathise with the Armenians. Or maybe you subconsciously associate Azerbaycan with countries like Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan, because of the “an”-ending and because your indigenous media outlets portray these countries in a bad light, you subconsciously have a negative view of Azerbaycan.
But what about the Corona? We literally had not a single point of reference to make sense of this phenomenon. It just popped up and we had little time to inform ourselves. It is not an ideological or political topic either, which means that our personal affiliation did not provide useful guidance to understand our feelings towards the disease. In neutral terms, there is actually nothing to form an opinion on. Equally, we would not form a political opinion on photosynthesis or the four seasons. However with the emergence of COVID-19, large masses of people started to voice discontent. They accuse politicians, corporations and elites of trying to control the citizens by locking them up. Some even say that the whole crisis is staged. In many parts of the world, people protest against their respective governments, because they think that their fundamental freedoms are restricted.
The media can be identified as one of the triggering factors before and as an amplifier after the occurrence of the virus. The argument is composed of two elements: first, information flows through monopolised channels. Second, the information flow is subject to free market dynamics. In other words, we get our information on a market with only similar suppliers and these suppliers are good sellers, because they sell emotions rather than goods. In yet other words, we are used to get news from the same sources and these sources deliver the information as a binary opinionated end product. Consequently, we all are subconsciously conditioned to assume that information in news carry implicit opinions on a binary basis: either the presented information is perceived to be good or bad, not just as information per se.
The main factor is a psychological one. In another article, I analysed how the general mistrust of citizens towards governments arose (see: “Litvinenko, Snowden, Köhler and Khashoggi – Are we really surprised?”). This mistrust seems to be so deeply rooted that some parts of the population of a society “othered” politicians, which means that they see themselves subconsciously so distant from politicians that they are the “others” to these portions of the population. Such a development is dangerous in every case, because it means that a group categorically rejects anything the group, that they designate as the “other”, says, does, likes or dislikes (similarly, an example of othering is treated in: “How Bad Is Donald Trump Really?”). Accordingly, in a volatile trust relationship between citizen and politician, non-controversial matters, such as the occurrence of a virus and the resulting precautionary measures, become points of conflict through “othering”. People are upset, because they have to alter their behaviour, which is an inherent violation of the personal comfort zone. However, it is obvious that politicians do not specifically target one citizen or a group of them, which means that people with low trust levels in the government need to connect the government actions to a larger motive to transform the accusation of acting in bad faith, on the side of the politicians, into a feasible argument. Since the lock downs and mask requirements are restrictive in nature, some groups in the population believe that the government wants to increase supervision and control over citizens.
Unfortunately, it is often unclear what gain could possibly be derived by a government, a corporation or any other interest group. Of course, some sectors saw their sales increase, but generally, the world economy drastically declined. The most convincing argument against Corona Conspiracies is the global stock market landscape before the crisis emerged. Before a crisis, there is a great deal of movement and monetisation of assets. This rule is infallible. Looking at the pre-crisis global stock exchanges, we can see that the major indices just experienced a phase of major growth and returns. Due to the strong structural growth of many companies, the healthy economic environment and the expansion of the capital market as a valuable place to finance innovative entrepreneurship, there was no reason to expect an opposite development. In 2007, most people knew that the housing bubble was disproportionately big. Today, the markets are bubbles as well, but nowhere close to the dimensions of the 2000’s housing bubble. Accordingly, when the global markets crashed in March, it came by surprise. Especially many companies that are partially owned by governments were struck hard by the crisis, because they are active in structural sectors like utilities or banking.
Finally, it is important to consider the precarious decision-making environment of politicians. Next to an already overwhelming workload, politicians are now in a situation full of uncertainty, need for adaptation and balancing of many different interests. Considering that no nation is ever fully satisfied with policies, the various governments face trade-offs and need to make decisions accordingly. Since the conspiracy theorists are still a minority in most countries, the cost-benefit analysis clearly points to a policy course that is highly precautious. In the end, it is better to be criticised for forcing people to wear a mask for a couple of months, rather than being accused of not caring about public health – no matter what the real scientific implications of the virus are.