Before 2020 the idea of the world coming together against a large-scale disaster was placed in the distant future, possibly once climate change had an apocalyptic effect. Natural disasters were far more localised, with only parts of the world being affected at any given point in time. The rest of the world stayed unaffected and in a position to provide support to affected areas. COVID-19 changed that. Suddenly, entire countries, and to some extent, the entire world had to come together to successfully control the disease. And we as a society proved our inability to do so. People around the globe continue to deny the dangers and at times even the existence of this virus which has already claimed more than 1 million lives.
Handling a disease at policy and personal levels requires a certain scientific temperament. One needs to accept advice from expert sources and follow safety measures. The basic prerequisite to this is believing in scientific evidence. In the current scenario, one can observe a lack of this temperament with too many Americans openly defying safety measures and even denying the existence of the virus. How do we understand Americans denying the virus even as their country has registered the highest number of COVID deaths in the world?
April 2020 saw widespread anti-lockdown protests across America. In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, protesters called their Governor a tyrant and compared her to Hitler. Almost all the protests called for freedom, with slogans like “Give me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” and “Freedom over fear”. Protestors ranged from those simply wanting to reopen businesses to COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. The general sentiment amongst the protestors was that stay-at-home orders and the closure of businesses were un-American because they did not respect individual choice and liberty and that the economy could not be threatened for public safety.
A common thread among these protestors was their political orientation — they were overwhelmingly conservative. Almost all the protests had Pro-Trump and MAGA posters, guns and confederate signs, and even anti-abortion signs. President Donald Trump praised these protestors, as people who “love our country”.
Political Psychology may hold the answer to why these people underplaying the crisis were largely conservative. Decades of research on personality types has led to an understanding of conservatives as people who are fearful of change, of unfamiliar people and places. They try to maintain a sense of familiarity and comfort by following rules But by this logic conservatives should be more inclined to following government guidelines for COVID control.
Needless to say, there is a lot more nuance to the connection between our scientific temperament and political ideologies. A 2013 poll found that while liberals believed in the primacy of science during the policymaking process, conservatives were more moderate in their approach towards science. Additionally, there is a divide in the kinds of scientists either sides prefer and by extension the issues on which they will regard scientific advice as important and necessary. Liberals trust scientists involved in areas of regulation, like public health and environmental science while conservatives prefer those involved in economic production — food scientists and petroleum geologists for example.
These nuances can help us better understand the reaction of conservatives towards COVID-19. ABC News has quoted a Michigan conservative leader as saying “bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus.” Another protestor is quoted saying “…I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe.” As we can infer from the studies, conservatives are inclined towards economic interests and are not very trusting of public health experts. They are thus more concerned with protecting their businesses, even when they acknowledge the threat posed by the virus. They are also inclined towards protecting the law and thus extremely protective of their constitutional rights, which they feel are being threatened by impositions of lockdown. It isn’t a case of dismissing science as much as it is a case of misplaced priorities.
The most important factor influencing conservatives is political propaganda. Conservative news outlets, politicians and most importantly President Donald Trump have been consistently underplaying or outrightly denying the virus, touting it as a Chinese or Democrat conspiracy to undermine Trump’s rule by crushing the economy. The virus has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. Human beings have a tendency to think emotionally more than logically. It has also been found that one can be persuaded of anything if the correct language is used, and if exposure to any kind of information is high. When one is exposed to such propaganda, one has an emotional instead of rational response to it and will be prone to believing it if it fits with one’s values. Since conservatives are being told that the virus is a conspiracy to undermine their leader, they believe this over their already weak scientific beliefs. Political propaganda and a desire to fit in has ultimately won over scientific temperament in conservatives.
It is interesting to examine India’s scientific temperament in its reaction to COVID. While American conservatives undermined the virus to align with and protect their political leaders and beliefs, Indians acted in a very different manner for similar ends. In recent times, India has become increasingly conservative with a rise in Hindu-nationalism. These ideas follow from the nationalist ideologies of the ruling political party, the BJP. PM Narendra Modi of the BJP has enjoyed immense popularity in recent years and has gained the support of a majority of conservative and right-wing groups in the country.
Unlike Trump, Modi insisted on the dangers of the virus and the necessity for a nationwide lockdown. In his speech announcing the ‘Jantacurfew’ in India in March, he asserted, “one step outside can make way for coronavirus into your house” and “Experts are saying that ‘social distancing’ is the only way to tackle coronavirus”. His response created a sense of fear about the virus. His supporters followed his advice, but this had more to do with their trust in him than with their scientific temperament.
This was apparent in the paranoia that followed. While Modi simply insisted on the importance of following safety guidelines, paranoia around the virus was at its peak despite the number of cases being at a few thousand. There were reports of people denying cremations to COVID patients and ostracising the ones that lived. Doctors and nurses were forcibly evicted by landlords. These behaviours continued even after the government issued notices asking the public to fight the disease and not the diseased. Unlike American conservatives whose fear was expressed through denying the virus, Indians reacted with heightened fear responses.
In addition to paranoia, scientific temperament was challenged by the government promoting traditional medicine. There were countless WhatsApp forwards about alternative medicines claiming approval from the WHO. These ranged from “Kadhas” (broths) of turmeric, honey, black pepper, cloves and every popular ingredient used by Indians to treat common colds. There were claims of methylxanthines, found in tea, declared as a cure by the Chinese doctor responsible for raising alarm about COVID early on in Wuhan. Using the WHO and names of chemicals helped legitimise these myths. Union AYUSH Minister Shripad Naik stated that COVID-19 can be treated by Ayurveda and that 60-70 percent of COVID cases in India were cured by Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha prescribed home remedies. He claimed that Ayurveda would boost one’s immunity and prevent the virus from attacking. A peculiar solution was found in cow urine, which was said to strengthen lymphocytes in the blood and be rich in antioxidants. The cow is considered holy in Hinduism and is being used as a violently nationalist symbol by the Indian right, with a leader claiming touching one helped cure her cancer. COVID gave these groups another opportunity to promote the cow. Thus followed cow urine-drinking parties organised by senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The consumption of cow urine surged to 6000 litres per day in the state of Gujarat.
Like the cow, Ayurveda and Indian home remedies have also been used as a political tool to claim the supremacy of Indian, specifically Hindu culture and tradition. The BJP and the Indian right have been trying to invoke pride in an ancient Indian history that is rooted in Hinduism, before the “invasion” by Mughals and the British, to increase nationalistic pride.
In the USA, scientific temperament was challenged by a preference for economic stability by conservatives, and by Republicans to protect the reputation of their leader Donald Trump as a saviour of the American economy. The Indian right used traditional medicine as a tool to battle coronavirus and further nationalistic sentiments. Whatever the end goal, the casualty was the same — the death of scientific temperament.
Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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