From soldiers to scapegoats: Why blaming citizens in the pandemic may help extremist parties

From soldiers to scapegoats: Why blaming citizens in the pandemic may help extremist parties

Mario Bisiada

This article is born out of personal frustration, a feeling that, I believe, is shared by many these days. While university teaching in many European countries was resigned to being online many months ago, my university, as most in Spain, had trumpeted a “hybrid” approach, guaranteeing face-to-face teaching for small groups and online teaching for bigger ones. I was excited to see students in person again, we had strict hygiene protocols and I believe we could have demonstrated that safe in-class teaching is possible. The Catalan government pulled the plug after one week of teaching, allegedly to reduce student mobility. To add insult to injury, the announcement came in a radio interview and before the closure of anything else was mentioned, with no consultation or appreciation of the academic community’s efforts. Student demands to reverse the decision weren’t heard.

As Catalonia enters another shutdown of social and cultural life, politicians across Spain say the restrictions are necessary because people have “relaxed” too much. Such discourses attributing blame to citizens have been shown to exist in Britain and Germany. An analysis of the UK finds, among other things, that “the mostly pro-regime press has been hard at work, ensuring that the powerful aren’t the subject of people’s wrath, but that our so-called ‘covidiot’ neighbours are blamed instead”. The Dutch “partial lockdown” is also blamed on people no longer following the rules − which is odd because a recent analysis claimed that the Dutch “intelligent lockdown” works precisely because it doesn’t rely on rules, but on giving people responsibility, an effect apparently linked to the Dutch national character.

While the beginning of the pandemic was marked by warlike discourse, constructing a situation of an “all-bets-are-off, anything-goes approach to emerging victorious”, addressing citizens as “soldiers” to rally them together to “fight” the “invisible enemy”, the discourses surrounding the “second wave” have little to do with community and more with mutual recrimination. Having left war metaphors behind, politicians, helped by a largely sensationalist media, pit people against each other, identifying particular groups such as migrants, youths or “deniers” and placing blame on them for each surge in cases. The importance of language in this pattern follows depressingly closely what Philip Strong argued in his 1990 landmark article Epidemic psychology: “Language’s fundamental role in the construction of human society can, therefore, explain much of the societal potential for epidemic psychology. The first form of that psychology, the epidemic of fear and suspicion is, at bottom, an unusually powerful pathology of social interaction. No social order can last long when basic assumptions about interaction are disrupted, when every participant fears the other, or suspects that the other may fear them. Fatal epidemics have the potential, in theory at least, to create a medical version of the Hobbesian nightmare: the war of all against all.”

Having left war metaphors behind, politicians’ tone is now paternalistic, often drawing on educational framings, casting themselves as authoritative teachers and citizens as unruly students who don’t want to behave. “Too many people are not keeping to the rules. Then we have no choice but to take tougher measures to make sure that we can no longer meet each other”, said Dutch president Mark Rutte when he announced his “partial lockdown”. I’m reminded here of class trips when we played football in the corridors instead of sleeping. As befits any pedagogical framing, voices are stating that people just “aren’t doing their homework” on coronavirus.

Not surprisingly perhaps, discourses blaming citizens have never been supported by any evidence or justification. They seem to be carried mainly by cultural stereotypes about “Latin people” lax in understanding or freedom-loving Britons and social media users posting finger-pointing photos of crammed subway trains, park barbecues or bar terraces. Where there is data, as for instance in the UK, the “general message from the data is most people want to comply with the guidance and they tend to comply with the guidance”. A related notion now making the rounds in press articles is that of “pandemic fatigue”, according to which people generally have suffered so much that they become tired of the rules. Though the effect is real, as surveys show, it is now increasingly pathologised as something that’s somehow our responsibility to overcome (“7 steps to reduce pandemic fatigue”, “fatigue-fighting foods can help you combat pandemic stress”).

The lockdown, always present as a Sword of Damocles, went from being our instrument in the fight against the virus, to now being threatened with as some kind of phenomenon brought on naturally by the virus if people don’t behave. What is evident here is that none of this is about protecting health, but rather about avoiding economic damage that another lockdown would cause. In the same vein, schools aren’t kept open because education is seen as important (witness the fact that universities are usually the first to be closed), but to keep children occupied so their parents can work. This was stated clearly by German health minister Jens Spahn in a recent interview: “we have to abstain in our private lives so that schools, childcare and the economy can stay open”.

The discourse of blame frames people as passive rather than active, as patients who need to be told what to do rather than agents who may have an interest themselves in fighting the pandemic. It implies a stance whereby the restrictions are happening to people along with the pandemic, and that people act only as and when instructed by governments. Paradoxically, it even seems to imply that this action happens against their will, and is never enough.

Why is the default assumption that citizens work against their own good in the pandemic? Politicians assuming the role of fed-up teachers are seen all over Europe. That position is may be taken by people who know what they’re doing, for instance, teachers who do the same course every year, who know what certain behaviours lead to. Nothing like this can be said about politicians in this crisis: they know as little as citizens. The only difference is that they have the power to dictate laws and restrict freedoms (a power that judges across Europe have thankfully been working hard to keep in check). Politicians in this crisis have no moral or epistemological justification to cast themselves into the role of teachers.

I want to propose a somewhat different account. The last time I wrote in this magazine, we knew nothing about the pandemic, and any measure was welcome to buy time. Seven months later, we’ve learnt quite a few things, and judgement on politicians who apply the same blanket measures from seven months ago has to be considerably harsher. The most important finding is probably that aerosols in closed spaces are more dangerous than previously believed. A letter published in Science states that “aerosols containing infectious virus can […] accumulate in poorly ventilated indoor air. […] Thus one is far more likely to inhale aerosols than be sprayed by a droplet, and so the balance of attention must be shifted to protecting against airborne transmission. In addition to existing mandates of mask-wearing, social distancing, and hygiene efforts, we urge public health officials to add clear guidance about the importance of moving activities outdoors […].”

This not only means outdoor areas are rather safe, but also that, as public transport stops frequently and opens doors, it is safer than many believe. Surface contagion is also not a significant factor.

Little of this knowledge seems to be reflected by recent measures affecting us: A distinction between inside and outside areas is generally not made, park closures continue to happen, educational and cultural institutions with comprehensive hygiene protocols, but also outdoor social areas in bars, are shut indiscriminately. None of the restrictions we’ve seen can be shown to have had an actual effect. Many of them are consistently toppled by courts, who, in the absence of a functioning political opposition and a critical press, are the only safeguards of basic freedoms and rights. To put it bluntly, most politicians have no idea what they’re doing.

Few scientists have stated this as straightforwardly as the Catalan epidemiologist and strategic advisor Oriol Mitjà, who, in a recent interview, blamed the “dangerously incompetent” Catalan government for having caused Covid-19 deaths. His main argument is that a great number of deaths could have been avoided, had the government invested in personnel to conduct contact tracing and fast antibody tests. Only once this approach has failed does he support restrictive measures, as an ultimate solution.

In a similar vein, WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, has argued that “the pandemic of today is not the pandemic of yesterday, not only in terms of its transmission dynamic but in the ways we are now equipped to face it”, thus a lockdown can now only mean a “stepwise escalation of proportionate, targeted and time-limited measures. Measures in which all of us are engaged both as individuals and as a society together in order to minimize collateral damage to our health, our economy and our society.”

A week before, he stated that “understanding the behavioural needs of young people returning to university to the emotional toll isolation has taken in elderly care homes, policy must be driven by the growing body of evidence we have on people’s behaviours” and also called for drawing on experts beyond the medical and public health sectors when discussing measures: “In Germany, the government has consulted philosophers, historians, theologians, and behavioural and social scientists, who provided valuable input on the educational progress of children from disadvantaged families, the legitimacy of restrictions, and the balance between public support and moral norms versus coercive state action.”

It’s safe to say that none of the sweeping closures, night-time curfews or travel bans we’re seeing again these days are congruent with the above demands. The restrictions do not involve the public, are rarely backed up by clear evidence or scientific findings and usually don’t take sociological considerations into account. They boil down to a brute force attempt to quash social life in order to get infection rates down at all costs. The public pressure thus generated has led to a polarisation between #staythefuckhome self-isolators and Trumpian anti-maskers, where the only choices seem to be “lockdown” or “herd immunity”, while neither of those terms are actually clearly defined by any description, and the toxicity of the whole debate has become too high for scientists to speak out.

People everywhere are discussing solutions and measures, in more or less informed ways. What some call “fatigue” could also be called a demand for measured responses, properly planned and communicated, backed up by evidence and easy to follow, keeping restrictions to rights and freedoms to a necessary minimum. People no longer support indiscriminate, wholesale restrictions that we had at the beginning and that are now being applied again.

This is essentially a democratic, participative phenomenon. Ignoring this phenomenon, patronising or pathologising it by slapping the “pandemic fatigue” label on it is seriously misreading it and will eventually play into the hands of extremist parties who are intelligent enough to know where to recruit their followers. The infantilisation of people can have an unwanted effect, as anyone who has ever taught knows. If you constantly tell people off even though they’re making an effort, if you don’t trust them and send belittling messages, they will eventually reject the entire scenario, which may be one reason why the amount of Covid-19 deniers is increasing steadily, as argued convincingly by Adam Ramsey.

The discourse of constant blame, part of the wider phenomenon that political scientist Wolfgang Merkel calls governance by fear, do not seem to consider the idea that citizens might have a will to work together to get through the pandemic, to protect each other, but also to return to a certain normality, to support their families, to continue to follow their passions and vocations, to cater to the human need to socialise, to guarantee an amount of sanity, finds no space in these views. It is a fundamentally antidemocratic discourse and must thus be challenged. To say it again in the words of Hans Kluge, “it is essential that we respond together and that communities own response policies with authorities. Consultation, participation and an acknowledgement of the hardships that people are facing are key if we are to have truly effective policies. The community should be considered a resource, as well as a recipient or beneficiary” (emphasis added). This, in my view, is just not happening, anywhere.


Mario Bisiada is a lecturer, Facultat de Traducció I Ciències del Llenguatge, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Image: Tim Dennell