Can Pandemic Paranoia Produce Mass Murder?

Research explores how pandemics and other catastrophes can drive us to war.

Posted Apr 05, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

Can the widespread emotional disturbance produced by a pandemic set off a cascade of psychological processes that inevitably result in armed conflict?

 Wikimedia Commons
The Triumph of Death painting 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the psychology of ‘scapegoating’, the experience of profoundly negative shocks drives us to find others to blame. Harassment of scapegoats often begins as a result, eventually culminating in atrocities like holocausts and wars.

The ‘Black Death’ pandemic was the greatest decimation in European history.  Forty percent of the population died between 1347 and 1352; but recent research into ‘scapegoating’ has also illuminated the increased persecution of European Jews that followed. 

The bacterium which caused bubonic plague, or the ‘Black Death’, is Yersinia Pestis, which was transmitted by the fleas of the black rat. Within less than a week, the bacteria spreads from the flea bite to the lymph nodes, producing the buboes or swollen lumps from which bubonic plague is named. The infection killed 70% of its victims within 10 days.

The need to find an enemy to blame during this cataclysm, according to some new academic research just published in the academic Journal of Economic Growth, explains why Jews were tortured into confessing that they had initiated the plague by poisoning wells.

The results from the new study suggest that pandemics may ignite psychological processes that cause even more lethal atrocities later on. The ‘Black Death’ pandemic led to the largest massacres of Jews prior to the Holocaust; but the paranoia produced by the contagion may also have paved the way to the kind of anti-Semitism and scapegoating that underpinned future World Wars and the Holocaust.

However, this new investigation, published in 2019, also found that ‘scapegoating’ had not been inevitable wherever the Black Death had struck, suggesting that there must be ways of discouraging it. Entitled ‘Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death’, it found that the higher the level of mortality in a medieval European city, paradoxically the less likely was it that Jews would subsequently be persecuted there.  

The authors have thereby uncovered a key antidote to ‘scapegoating’: when people decide they need one another in order to survive a mortality crisis, then persecution goes down.  Around one half of the cities with a Jewish community reported some form of persecution during the Black Death; however, the towns which experienced more severe plague outbreaks were less likely to persecute their Jewish community.  

This might reflect the influence of the level of desperation upon the onset of persecution: which could be significant in predicting the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in pushing us towards increased conflict and maybe even war.

An additional factor was that Jews were more likely to be victimised in towns where people were already more anti-Semitic or inclined to believe that Jews had caused the plague. But cities that persecuted their Jewish community more during the Black Death also grew more slowly in the following centuries, suggesting that ‘scapegoating’ is also generally an unproductive economic strategy. Jews were less likely to be maltreated—despite higher plague mortality rates—in cities where they offered specialized economic services, such as moneylending or trading services.

The authors of the research conclude that the engagement of the minority and majority communities in economically mutually complementary activities may be a powerful way to reduce subsequent inter-group violence. Maybe we are less likely to hound the natives of the pandemic’s country of origin if we still need them to provide ventilators, face masks and an airline industry.  On the other hand, if the conspiracy theorists suspect them of having caused the pandemic because this served their economic interests—by virtue of having destroyed ours—then maybe future hostilities become that much more likely.

A huge role is played by the prevalence of pre-existing biases—be they cultural or economic—against the ‘out-group’ before the infection hits. Also, timing seems crucial. Cities which first experienced infection during a period when Christians were more disposed to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, for example over Easter, also experienced more persecution. The stage seems set for such violence when traditions exist as for example in medieval Toulouse, where the Jewish community were forced to pick one of their own every year to be publicly slapped in the face on Good Friday.

Another recent paper, ‘Do Natural Disasters Enhance Societal Trust?’, also examined 3,799 disaster events from 105 countries over the 1970-2000 period and found that whether people bonded together or not in the face of community collapse was similarly predictable. The study argues that while some naturally occurring disasters such as storms can have devastating human and economic impacts, nevertheless a potentially unexpected social benefit of greater hurricane exposure appears to be a more tightly knit society.  It seems that some natural disasters provide the opportunity for societies to bond by working closely together, to meet their collective challenges.

However, whether people collect together as opposed to fracturing and fighting one another, may depend on the kind of catastrophe they face.  Disasters that tend to have widely differing effects on the rich as compared with the poor, such as floods (poorer groups are usually much more highly exposed), erode social networks and trust. On the other hand, some types of disasters—for example, storms—affect social classes more uniformly, generating greater cooperation across communities.

This study confirms that floods increase distrust in a country, while storms improve trust.

But a contagious disease tends to target people and leave buildings intact, and this may predispose a population to become even more paranoid that this may have been part of some enemy conspiracy, even perhaps a bio-weapon. It also means that congregational acts like repairing a bridge or church are less likely to happen, are anyway less visible and therefore public acts of solidarity become less tangible, meaning less of the necessary social cohesion referred to above.

Is the rapid spread of an epidemic of public clapping of health care staff that is happening at appointed hours across Europe a good example of this problem?  A moving act of solidarity, yet it also seems somewhat feeble.  If neighbours were allowed to bond together and do something more practically helpful, maybe this would build community solidarity more effectively and inoculate against scapegoating. But blanket social-distancing has the inadvertent effect of preventing this.

The current outbreak of random acts of solidarity in the midst of this pandemic appear somewhat chance and haphazard. Maybe there should even be teams tasked with innovatively creating these kinds of bonding events in every locale, and across regions of the planet, given the challenges of social distancing?

However, the powerful psychological motives to scapegoat are so strong that clumsy official interventions could make things even worse. 

For example, the Italian press has now accused Russia of secreting military spies among a group of doctors dispatched to the centre of Italy's coronavirus epidemic. President Vladimir Putin apparently offered to help during a phone call with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Moscow then gifted nine aircraft and more than 100 experts, along with medical supplies, to Milan.

But Italian sources now claim that 80 percent of the aid was useless. The delivery, therefore, began to appear more like a ‘pretext’. Instead it is now claimed that Russia's 104-strong aid contingent, run by the military, contained intelligence operatives.

The Russian Embassy in Rome tweeted a condemnation of the Italian press for 'Russophobic Cold War fake news'.

The war of words is escalating between Italy and Russia, which betrays another reason our leaders may have a very powerful psychological vested interest in encouraging ‘scapegoating’.

Historically politicians have positively encouraged ‘scapegoating’ because it helps distract an electorate away from blaming their own government for the chaos produced by a pandemic. Instead, ‘scapegoating’ produces a target-rich environment of external enemies. This confusion conveniently diverts attention away from the enemy within, which is our administration’s own incompetence.

The virus invades our own cells and hi-jacks them to re-produce and spread; but the psychology of the pandemic is about how powerful emotions can be similarly hi-jacked and diverted to ignite wars and pogroms which then devastate just as much as the disease.

But the research reported here demonstrates there is a way to understand history so we can inoculate ourselves from the danger of repeating it.

How long before the growing tensions between communities and governments, if unchecked by the rapid injection of a mental vaccine that promotes teamwork as the better answer, erupt into armed conflict?

Dr Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this article was written by Dr Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


Jedwab, Remi, Noel D. Johnson, and Mark Koyama. "Negative shocks and mass persecutions: evidence from the Black Death." Journal of Economic Growth 24.4 (2019): 345-395.

Persecution & Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (Cambridge Studies in Economics, Choice, and Society) Noel D. Johnson, and Mark Koyama

“Do Natural Disasters Enhance Societal Trust?” Mark Skidmore and Hideki Toya, Kyklos, Vol 67 (2), 2014 .

Moscow is accused of hiding military spies among a group of doctors it had sent to Italy's coronavirus epicentre. By JACK WRIGHT FOR MAILONLINE PUBLISHED: 19:37, 3 April 2020 | UPDATED: 19:58, 3 April 2020