Will the Coronavirus Bring Us Together or Push Us Apart?

How this crisis is different from 9/11.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

geralt / pixabay
Source: geralt / pixabay

It is often said that common enemies bring us together. After 9/11, the country had a reported increase in patriotism — presidential approval ratings soared, and political divisions dissolved as people saw that they shared a common humanity that could unite them.

The coronavirus is a sort of common enemy, making other concerns seem trivial. But it is one of a different kind, since the enemy may or may not live inside the people around us. It is an enemy that generates suspicion of others, causing us to flinch at coughs and distance ourselves from each other physically and emotionally.  

Contamination fears can often bring out the worst in us. The theory of the behavioral immune system suggests that prejudice may have evolved in part to help us avoid pathogens that unfamiliar others might be carrying. Indeed, reminding people of disease threats can increase anti-immigrant bias, and physical sensations of disgust can make us more morally vigilant or socially conservative. Perhaps this is why we’ve seen a reported increase in racist incidents toward Chinese people and others in the media, with Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” When others constantly seem like a contamination threat, and the main priority is protecting one’s health, the natural impulse is to cling to one’s group and view others with a sense of fear.

Social isolation and loneliness can have tremendous consequences for our physical and mental health, and it can be difficult for us to come together socially when we are physically apart. The pandemic has also brought out stories of selfish behavior, such as hoarding toilet paper. When the world suddenly seems zero-sum battle to protect one’s self, it may be hard to feel generous or compassionate.  

It’s too early to know whether the coronavirus will bring out the best or worst of us. While there have been reports of wars allowing people to establish a shared identity, there are not stories of the Spanish Flu or other epidemics doing the same. The Spanish Flu led to roughly as many, or likely more, deaths than World War One, depending on estimates, and infected about a third of the world’s population. But, our history books — and the cultural imagination — linger on heroic deaths in wars, not the quiet ones in pandemics.

There are natural comparisons of this moment to 9/11 and other disasters. Author Rebecca Solnit has noted that “the image of the panicky or regressively savage human being in times of a disaster has little truth to it.” Instead, she argues that people approach disasters with altruism.

That may have been true after 9/11. Studies found that people’s natural language shifted after 9/11, including more references to people and loved ones. But there is a unique obstacle disrupting our natural impulse to come together during trying times — our physical distance — that may hinder this altruism. And our common enemy right now is so abstract— living invisibly on surfaces or inside the very people we may want to help. We’ve had few signs of the decreasing partisanship 9/11 brought, as the perceived risk of the coronavirus has been split on partisan lines.

Perhaps this is why Trump has recently framed this issue as a "war with a hidden enemy." Metaphors can powerfully shape how we think, and invoking the metaphor of war may be an attempt to get people to come together against a more specific common enemy (and try to boost his approval ratings).

However, our extremely online era – which we often decry as the source of so much strife – may help bring us together amid so many forces that are pushing us apart. There are stories of creative hangouts via Zoom and Skype, viral videos of Italians singing out of windows during self-isolation, and stories of #covid-kindness online. Our social distancing is, paradoxically, a kind of unity – an altruistic form of collective action aimed at stopping the spread.

Amidst all forces that are dividing us, our online world may help bring us together and record this unprecedented moment in history in a way that couldn’t happen with the Spanish Flu.