Despite much insistence on the contrary from politicians and their allies in the mainstream media, a pandemic does not properly capture what we are living through. We are living through the moral panic of COVID-19 in which an artificially created fear of a novel coronavirus has taken hold of the masses. More concerning however is that fear has gone beyond the virus itself and anyone questioning the measures being enacted to fight the disease is labeled as a danger to society.
Under these circumstances, reason and compassion are quickly cast aside for irrationality and inhumanity. While the masses are gripped in fear they look to those in authority for an end to the madness no matter who may be hurt in the process. The upper echelons of power then gleefully take the opportunity to reinforce their authority by passing laws that would be unthinkable during normal times. It was only in the shadow of 9/11 that the PATRIOT Act could pass and civil liberties be removed and if the moral panic of COVID-19 continues we will surely see health mandates coming to pass that just months ago would have been unimaginable.
Even though we are in the latter stages of the moral panic of COVID-19 there is still time to correctly diagnose this phenomenon. In doing so we just might be able to turn the tides of panic. The time for sharing graphs, studies, and figures has passed as people are locked into their beliefs but, for those that will not be taken hostage by fear or comply to immoral mandates, we can be the examples needed to spread sanity and end this madness.
The Stages of Moral Panic
In his 1972 work, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers sociologist, Stanley Cohen defined five crucial stages in the construction of a moral panic. These stages have been developing through 2020 in the context of the coronavirus panic.
1. Someone, something or a group are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests
Cohen refers to these threats as “folk devils” and during the moral panic of COVID-19 there was not just one threat but many that emerged. First it was SARS-CoV-2, the deadly and novel coronavirus. Then emerged the supposed asymptomatic carriers which made mankind himself the enemy. As the months have rolled on and mandates, health protocols, and lockdowns were been issued, it became those resisting these measures that became the greatest threat to the stability of a locked down world by daring to live life as normal. Business owners refusing to close, beachgoers not wearing masks, and politicians keeping their states or countries open have become modern day witches and Satanists unleashing evil and darkness upon the world.
2. The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media
The choice not to give too much airtime to protestors, business owners, and average Joes who were defying the state’s orders was very deliberate. News segments and articles just long enough to demonize and mock them were released so that the narrative could still be controlled that these were dangerous movements whose ranks only included the fringes of society. This tactic ensured that anyone pushing for normalcy would not become the symbol of the pandemic.
Instead the symbol of the coronavirus, a nefarious spiked green orb, started appearing soon after the narrative of a deadly disease was constructed. It was often depicted against an ominous red backdrop on the evening news. Government-sponsored advertisements featuring the evil orb appeared between news segments. It was soon everywhere in public on billboards, storefronts, public transit, and everywhere else you could hang a sign or poster which reinforced the message that we were living in dangerous times.
There were many other signs and symbols that rose alongside the orb during the early stages of the pandemic. Red, the color of anger, was used on all charts and graphs tracking cases and deaths. Cartoons, being less dystopian than live actors, are used to illustrate handwashing techniques and social distancing. Hearts and rainbows were perversely used to illustrated camaraderie during a time when people were isolating.
Then, there was the surgical mask, perhaps the most power symbol in the coronavirus narrative. It was the incessant use of this symbol which ushered in the next phase of the moral panic of COVID-19.
3. The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern
The facemask was the perfect symbol for raising alarm bells in the public consciousness as it seemingly hits humans on a deep psychological level. Vigilant Citizen explains:
A person wearing a mask is a startling sight that affects us on a visceral level. It instantly triggers our deeply-rooted fear of illness and death. It unconsciously raises our brain’s stress and anxiety levels while alerting us of impending danger. Each masked face is a reminder that things are not normal, that we should be afraid, and that we are still looking for outside forces to save us.
On a human level, the mask dehumanizes the people around us. How can we relate and associate with other people if we cannot tell if they’re smiling or not? How can we connect with other people if we can only communicate using muffled words through a piece of cloth? We can’t. Quite to the contrary, the mask says: Stay away from me, I don’t trust you.
The absence of a mask was equally powerful. Those refusing to don a mask, either due to the substantial evidence which shows that they’re ineffective in preventing the spread of a disease or because it’s symbolic representation as a means of silencing people, became threats to the order of things.
4. There is a response from authorities and policy makers
One the public was frightened enough, governments and bureaucracies rode in to quell their fears. People’s lives ground to a standstill in the spring as borders closed, flights were cancelled, businesses were shuttered, and variations on shelter-in-place orders were issued. These measures, we were told, were only to be used temporarily in order to stop the spread of the virus. We just needed two weeks to “flatten the curve” after all.
As is now obvious, none of these measures have had a meaningful impact on the spread of the virus. Coronavirus cases are not a reliable statistic by any means but nonetheless, this is the metric those in favor of these measures wish to use and at every turn have been proven useless. Still, the mandates and orders persists and may even become more extreme as time goes by.
5. The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community
This is the phase of the panic we are living through as of December 2020. It remains to be seen what will last and what will become relics of hysteria. Perhaps some will be wearing facemasks for the rest of their days; there are surely others who will never darken the door of a restaurant, bar, or club again; and maybe those who locked themselves in their houses back in March will never meaningfully reemerge into the world.
The Attributes of A Moral Panic
To further illustrate that the response to SARS-CoV-2 is indeed a moral panic let’s look at the characteristics as defined by sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda:
Concern – There must be the belief that the behavior of the group or activity deemed deviant is likely to have a negative effect on society.
This is the role of the “anti” crowd, those against the masks, lockdowns, vaccines, etc. By not following the protocols it is claimed they will collapse the healthcare system as the virus spreads unchecked. Politicians threaten to not reopen their cities, states, and countries until they get the levels of compliance they deem acceptable, further pitting the public against one another.
Hostility – Hostility toward the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
The technique of dividing and conquering the public has been on full display in recent months. The examples above clearly illustrate this but further division has been stoked due to protests against police violence over the summer and the recent presidential election in the United States.
Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganized.
The messaging around this is very clear. The moral entrepreneurs have the mainstream media, celebrities, and much of the political class behind them parroting the platitude of “trust the science,” while those who stand opposed are portrayed as being on the fringe of society. They are often conflated with conspiracy theorists, far right extremists, or flat earthers for good measure. All of this despite turnouts at demonstrations against regulations sometimes being in the hundreds of thousands comprised of people from all walks of life.
Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
To say that the response to the novel coronavirus has been disproportional is an understatement at this point. The reaction to a virus that has with a 99+% survival rate for those under 70 has caused more destruction to the economic well-being and social cohesion of the United States than the virus ever could.
Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared because public interest wanes or news reports change to another narrative.
We got a glimmer of this over the summer when people took to the streets over the death of George Floyd. It is this writer’s contention that the protesting was really the result of the mental toll the lockdowns had taken on people but nonetheless, once the media began it’s never-ending coverage of Floyd’s death and the subsequent analysis of the matter it was as if coronavirus wasn’t that big of a deal after all. The same could be said in the weeks leading up to election day as crowds gathered to cast and count votes.
It remains to be seen whether this when the panic will fully subside but with many people now cheering on the experimental vaccines being deemed safe we could be looking at a lull in the madness over the winter. However, once COVID fatigue sets in far enough we may find ourselves back in the throes of the environmental panic as climate lockdowns are called for.
All moral panics come to an end, so too will the moral panic of COVID-19 be over one day. The predominant question then is, what can be done to ensure that freedom has the best chance of prevailing? In Part II we will explore how the dialogue around COVID-19 has to change so that we can restore sanity and move forward.