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Epidemics and pandemics spread among human populations because the viruses and bacteria that cause them exploit a key evolutionary asset of the human species, namely, our unique pro-social nature. Helping others is celebrated across all cultures and times as the greatest of all moral virtues, but it is also that part of our nature that viruses have evolved to best turn against us. That is why “social distancing,” the elimination of physical contact between individuals, although perhaps necessary to some degree seems so unnatural and is so hard to sustain.

Despite our physical weakness relative to other creatures, our ability to create and maintain strong social bonds that can extend outward to indefinitely many other human beings has enabled our species to dominate all large biological competitors. Through socialization, we learn from one another, benefitting from others’ experiences and information, to better and even save our lives. This, together with social cooperation, our innate desire and ability to help one another even at risk and cost to oneself, are perhaps the greatest advantages that humans have. Especially when those closest to us – our families and friends – become ill, we yearn to reach out to them, to embrace them, to caress them, to physically and emotionally comfort them.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a creeping realization that the psychological, social, and political problem of how to sustain social distancing, without draconian authoritarian measures, can potentially challenge the very existence of open societies. The stopping of global travel and increasing limits on ordinary transportation; closing of national borders, cities and towns; states barring victims from other states; the progressively drastic restrictions on all public gatherings; the fencing off of neighborhoods and homes; and especially the impetus not to touch family or friends; together constitute a forceful, piercing and dishearteningly effective attack against the better angels of our nature. This attack encourages all those noxious “—isms,” like egotism, chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobic nationalism, that seed loneliness, indifference, violence, and war. And in fact, without social cooperation and mutual aid – between neighbors, communities, nations, and even strangers – epidemics and pandemics may sicken and kill many more than if there were no help from others to share relevant information, technology, and trained personnel.

In this age of increasing political polarization, anger and disbelief, a concerted push for cross-border and cross-community cooperation may seem a hard sell. (Iran’s regime deems American offers of help “repulsive”). The unabating politicization and lack of coordination in America’s national response to COVID-19 only furthers social and economic mayhem and needless deaths. The pandemic has exposed America’s deepest fault lines: where already disadvantaged minorities suffer more than others from the disease and its economic consequences; where some rural states remain willfully blind to the plight of its great urban centers; and where many of the rapidly increasing unemployed have no health insurance for hospitalization whose average cost is nearly a year’s salary that, if they live, will be out of reach.

I buy the reasoning that society’s ability to cope with the pandemic is not a function of a government being authoritarian or democratic, but of the degree of trust that the population has in its own people and leaders, and the power of those leaders to mobilize the people – attributes that FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan demonstrably possessed (regardless of their ideological differences). The USA has vested increasingly sufficient power in the executive, but there is widespread lack of trust in its leaders, whose uncompromising political disputes have stoked deep distrust between large segments of the population. That is an acute problem now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future. The same two factors, mixed to different degrees in other liberal democracies, appear to be critical. With rising popular distrust and factional paralysis comes greater willingness to accept absolutist ideasexclusionary identities, and authoritarian measures —tendencies clearly on the upswing among liberal democracies but still reversible.

Yet even if America’s leadership had been more competent, and attentive to basic knowledge and the common need, rather than continuing to engage in ever more vicious blood sport (where political vilification inflames a free-for-all social media unbound from truth, and overdrives a cutthroat competition in cable TV); and even if the federal health bureaucracy were more attuned to the urgency of individual survival and protection of the public’s physical well-being (typical U.S. retail price of chloroquine tablets, for possible use against COVID-19, is more than 100 times the average wholesale cost in the developing world), and less hidebound to rules geared to sheltering the private health industry whose primary care is that people are revenue (forswearing diagnostic tests successfully deployed by hard-hit countries across the world the world; procuring vital medical equipment for private companies, thus driving states into a bidding war to buy at increasing cost); still the nation would have fallen far short. For no nation alone can halt a global pandemic, one now present in every country of the world. More international cooperation, not less, is the only realistic way to contain this virus, and quell the next.

Moreover, today the potential political, social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 disease provide new and dangerous opportunities for extremist actions, and for ideas developed at the extremes to filter into the body politic. There is a rapid proliferation of numerous social media groups on the far-left (e.g., the website “The Plague and The Fire,” which refers to a series of terrible natural events that occurred in London in 1665-1666, including The Black Death and The Great Fire) and even more on the far-right (e.g., Facebook’s QAnon; the Telegraph channel “Hundred Handers,” which in Greek mythology refers to the super-strong children of Titans, each with 100 hands and 50 heads). These extremist networks weave “kernels of truth” — so essential to successful disinformation — into conspiracy theories involving the usual suspects (Jews, Asians, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, George Soros, Wall Street, Hollywood, the police, government functionaries, — and now also CDC, WHO, Bill Gates, and Dr. Fauci, who is pilloried thousands of times daily on dozens of #FauciFraud Twitter accounts). They feed the minds of violent extremists who seek to destroy “The Deep State” and “The System,” while also infiltrating their noxious and corrosive conspiracies into the political and media mainstream.

There is a lesson from history. In the interwar years (1918-1939), extreme political movements engaging in mass violence could flourish in the wake of a series of spectacular man-made and natural disasters, including WWI, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression. Today’s belligerent fringe groups, motivated and focused, are able insinuate themselves into the general population, especially when society’s defenses are weakened by crisis and political fragmentation. As this development progresses, the population splits and shifts towards the extremes, with no room for innocents or those between. The most extreme elements of these networks (e.g., “The Daily Stormer,” “Eichmann Division”) strive to act in accordance with the aim of destroying the social order of particular governments, and the international order as a whole. A key strategy of the most extreme groups is to convulse civil society, hitting institutions and now emergency services, to cause society’s implosion so that a New Order can be built from the rubble (including apocalyptic forms of terrorism akin to Aum Shirikiyo, which unleashed Sarin gas in Japan as a test bed for ultimately “destroying the world to save it”).

Nevertheless, there is also real opportunity to help put societies on a different track, by pro-actively deploying our better angels to turn the tables on our pathogenic nemesis and our own societal malaise. Consider this other example from history: Before the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, Christianity likely was well on its way to gaining the allegiance of the majority of the Empire’s population through conversion and natural growth (around 40 percent per decade from a few hundred followers at the time of Christ). This occurred, in part, because the early Christians offered spiritual equality and comfort to the underprivileged (slaves, minorities, women) but also because they gave water and warmth to Romans infected by plague and other diseases, and so helped many to survive as the Romans abandoned their own and left them to die alone.

This is not to proffer Christianity as the solution to the social distancing problem and the key to societal healing. (During the genocide in Rwanda, that most Christian of African nations, when Christians massacred Christians and Christian nations stood idly by, it was the small minority of Sunni Muslims that offered aid and protection to the afflicted.) Neither do I think religion is a necessary part of the solution (I am not a believer), although Pope Francis’s call for priests to tend the coronavirus sick while avoiding contagion seems a laudable step in a good direction.

Rather, I suggest that we might better reflect and act as Albert Einstein, that otherwise most self-isolating and solitary figure, put it: “Strange is our situation here upon the earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose… That we are here for the sake of other men – above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our happiness depends, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected.”  We see glimmers of such understanding and hope today in the increasingly coordinated actions of the general scientific community, whose individuals and teams are typically among the world’s most competitive and proprietary, now beginning to freely share data and discoveries to aid the sick whoever and wherever they may be. This scientific spirit, once the pride of the nation, if it endures, lights a road to recovering Rome for the world.

Published On: April 20, 2020

Scott Atran

Scott Atran

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Scott Atran is an anthropologist and psychologist who studies how cognitive and biological dispositions, and cultural preferences and values, shape social structures and political systems and drive group conflict. He is co-founder of Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford; Research Professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy; Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Centre; Emeritus Director of Research at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; and advisor to the UN Security Council on counterterrorism and issues of Youth, Peace, and Security. His work and life have been spotlighted on television, radio, internet blogs and podcasts, and in the popular and scientific press, including feature and cover stories of the New York Times MagazineThe Chronicle of Higher EducationNature and Science.

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