Disease can cause a society to become xenophobic

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


A report issued this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tracked voting in 60 German cities, from 1925 to 1933, to see if there was a relationship between support for extremist political parties and the local death rate during the 1918 influenza epidemic. It found that

Influenza deaths of 1918 are correlated with an increase in the share of votes won by right-wing extremists, such as the National Socialist Workers Party (aka the Nazi Party), in the crucial elections of 1932 and 1933. This holds even when we control for a city’s ethnic and religious makeup, regional unemployment, past right-wing voting, and other local characteristics assumed to drive the extremist vote share.

Over a much longer period, the threat level of infectious disease has influenced the type of governmental regime operating in a given society. A lower threat level favors contemporary liberal democracy, a higher threat level favors more dictatorial states. For example, Randy Thornhill, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New Mexico, and three colleagues found in a 2010 paper that in western nations, “the marked increase in the liberalization of social values that began to occur in the West in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-authoritarianism, etc.)” was preceded by a dramatic reduction of “infectious-disease prevalence.”

This reduction was the result of “a generation or two earlier of widespread availability of antibiotics, child vaccination programs, food- and water-safety practices, increased sanitation and vector control.” Conversely, Thornhill and colleagues write, “populations characterized by a high prevalence of infectious diseases” foster what they call “value systems” characterized by ethnocentric attitudes, adherence to existing traditions, behavioral conformity, xenophobia and neophobia (the tendency to avoid or retreat from an unfamiliar object or situation).

… Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at the University of London and author of the book “Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities,” has a more optimistic take on the likely political consequences of the pandemic: “My view is that Covid-19 weakens national populism because it reduces cultural threat.”

It does so, Kaufmann observes, because it

a) cuts immigration, b) cuts globalization, c) raises the profile of health care and the economy, two material issues, and reduces the profile of culture war issues which drive right populism, d) compels faith in experts, making it riskier to entrust “burn it all down” populists with power and e) focuses on the (relatively diverse and foreign-born) health care workers as heroes.

Judith Bulter writes:

On the one hand, the pandemic exposes a global vulnerability. Everyone is vulnerable to the virus because everyone is vulnerable to viral infection from surfaces or other human beings without establishing immunity. Vulnerability is not just the condition of being potentially harmed by another. It names the porous and interdependent character of our bodily and social lives. We are given over from the start to a world of others we never chose in order to become more or less singular beings. That dependency does not precisely end with adulthood. To survive, we take something in. We are impressed upon by the environment, social worlds and intimate contact. That impressionability and porosity define our embodied social lives. What another breathes out, I can breathe in, and something of my breath can find its way into yet another person. The human trace that someone leaves on an object may well be what I touch, pass along on another surface or absorb into my own body. Humans share the air with one another and with animals; they share the surfaces of the world. They touch what others have touched and they touch one another. These reciprocal and material modes of sharing describe a crucial dimension of our vulnerability, intertwinements and interdependence of our embodied social life.