Professor Thomas Long (Courtesy of Thomas Long)

Fear, Stigma, Blame — UConn Prof Considers the Novel Virus

There are human tendencies in times of a epidemic that drive people to fear, bogus medical advice, and casting blame on society’s most vulnerable, said University of Connecticut Professor of English Thomas Long, who studies social reactions to epidemics in culture and literature.

“Epidemics have often, not always, but often been described as having a kind of dramatic arc with an initial first act moving into rising complication, catastrophe, and climax and then a denouement at the end. There’s a sort of dramatic arc to epidemics and hopefully we will see that soon — that it will pass quickly.”

As the coronavirus continues to change day-to-day life and dominate media coverage, Long said in a Monday interview that he would caution the public to be vigilant for misinformation, fearmongering, and our own confirmation biases in these uncertain times.

“Fear, stigma, blame, and risk are the chief dynamics of the kinds of language that we use around an epidemic,” he said.

In the early years after AIDS was recognized by the Centers for Disease Control in 1981, Long said that the disease was treated as if it only affected the “Three H’s”: homosexuals, heroin users, and ‘Haitians’ — a term which was applied broadly to immigrants of color.

“Epidemics have often, not always, but often been described as having a kind of dramatic arc with an initial first act moving into rising complication, catastrophe, and climax and then a denouement at the end. There’s a sort of dramatic arc to epidemics and hopefully we will see that soon — that it will pass quickly.”

To much of society, these were “people who were all disposable,” Long said. “There is always a need to assign blame around epidemic diseases. The blame is often associated with marginalized groups,” Long said, “and the blame is often moralized with some kind of religious inflection.”

In his book Aids and American Apocalypticism, Long wrote that, before and during the AIDS epidemic in the United States, religious activists such as Anita Bryant and David Wilkerson had described homosexuality as an “epidemic,” something that was bringing society into moral peril.

Elsewhere in his book, Long noted that a yellow fever outbreak around 1800 in the United States was at times blamed on French revolutionary philosophy. He quotes a newspaper article from the Gazette of the United States in 1800 as saying, “Our cities have been punished in proportion to the extent of Jacobinism; and in general at least three out of four of the person who have perished by pestilence have been over zealous partizans [sic].”

The human instinct to cast blame for a disease can be traced back at least the beginning of Western literature itself, Long said. He noted that Homer’s Iliad begins with the Greeks suffering from a pestilence as the gods retribution for the abuse of a priest’s daughter. Oedipus Rex begins with a city afflicted by a plague that punishes a sin.

Long said that this urge to find someone to blame has had the effect of harming marginalized groups.

The new and the old of coronavirus

Long was a Roman Catholic priest in eastern Virginia for most of the 80s, where he said he “was one of a handful of clergy who could be reliably called upon to minister to gay men who had AIDS and to their partners and families.”

Much of his work at that time, as the AIDS epidemic spread through the communities he served, was spent in homes, hospitals, and hospices. He left the priesthood in 1988 and the church shortly thereafter.

“And of course the problem, as a gay man who surived the AIDS epidemic without being infected, I spent the 1980s assuming I was infected. The common wisdom at that time was that there was no point in getting tested because there was nothing that could be done for you.”

To test positive would just leave you to “spend the rest of your days in constant anxiety without anything you can do,” he added. “This was the whole group of so-called worried well.”

Long said that much of his research since then has been “a remembrance. It was a work of mourning, and so this [coronavirus] epidemic has in some extent triggered some of those memories for me — Remembering the confusion, the confusing messages, remembering the bogus cures, remembering all of the wacky etiologies… and denial. Various kinds of denial.”

He said there are some elements of the coronavirus that show clear relation to earlier epidemics and some elements that are truly unprecedented.

Long said that despite early attempts to suppress or play down the information on the virus by Chinese authorities and the Trump administration, “the unprecedented part it seems to me is the speed with which the epidemic and its viral cause was identified and publicized fairly early on.”

Today’s scientists understand more about viruses — even a novel virus — than in any previous period in history, which allows for faster research and hopefully, eventually a treatment or vaccine. “That is unprecedented in human history,” he said.

And in today’s news environment, “both with news media and social media — good information can get circulated fairly quickly. And so can bad information.”

Thomas noted that today’s social media accelerate the spread of information and also exaggerate confirmation biases.

“I think everybody has a mixture of anxiety and depression. It’s subclinical — not reaching the clinical level — but I think everybody is experiencing some mood disruptions, and I think we need to be attentive to that and pay attention to that and frankly not worry quite so much about productivity.”

“Social media have algorithms to feed us the things that we’ve paid attention to in the past. So if the things we’ve paid attention to in the past are associated with fear, stigma, blame, and miscalculation of risk, then the algorithms of social media are going to refine themselves and learn from our previous choices and they are going to, in a sense, mimic the confirmation bias that we humanly have.”

Another unprecedented element of the coronavirus outbreak have been the dramatic acts of social distancing in society’s response, Long said.

“At least with the AIDS epidemic, we could still have physical closeness and companionship with each other, but now we can’t do that,” he said. “With the AIDS epidemic, we could at least still gather and mourn together.”

While keeping people physically apart will delay the virus’ spread, he said he was concerned that it could also exacerbate anxiety and depression.

“I think everybody has a mixture of anxiety and depression. It’s subclinical — not reaching the clinical level — but I think everybody is experiencing some mood disruptions, and I think we need to be attentive to that and pay attention to that and frankly not worry quite so much about productivity.”

Viruses as an enemy — a poor analogy

Another challenge that society faces in addressing a virus is a tendency to liken it to a more physically tangible kind of threat — usually war.

“There is in the popular imagination a notion that if we all work together we will defeat this thing and we will win the war,” Long said. “Well how did that work for the War on Drugs? How did that work for the War on Poverty? The War on Crime? How did that work for the War on AIDS? Well… it didn’t. So we are stuck with endemic problems. That’s the issue that we may have to face. That this is not just a transitory flu-like event, but that this may become endemic to human populations. Much in the same way that now HIV is now endemic globally.”

The declaration of war can help to rally attention for a short period of time, Long said, but in the long term, a militaristic analogy is fruitless because “it is more complex.”

Long cautioned that as we take in new information, we should ask how it could be shaped by our cognitive biases.

“I think if people are simply aware of and stop to ask themselves, ‘How is what I am thinking and feeling filtered through the tendency to feel fear and assign stigma, how is what I am thinking and feeling filtered through our human tendency to assign blame, and how is what I am thinking and feeling filtered through our flawed ability to calculate risk?’ It requires a certain kind of mindfulness or attentiveness, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that we need to do as individuals and as families and as groups and as communities.”

The other most important advice, he said, is to wash your hands and look to expertise.

A few reading or watching suggestions

Asked what pieces of literature could be of use to people thinking about the virus and how people react in the face of an epidemic, he gave three suggestions:

The 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which Katherine Ann Porter wrote based off of her own experiences with the influenza outbreak of 1918 in Denver.

Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America, which has been critically acclaimed for its depiction of AIDS in America. And the musical Rent, which Long said “gives us a sense of how people can react or respond to each other compassionately.”

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