If COVID-19 is the latest moral panic, who are the folk devils?
In a year of ‘following the science’, the social sciences have not had a look in. Perhaps they have made way for the behavioural scientists, of which there are a good few in SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) — the body providing expert advice on how to tackle and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. My concern — to borrow a phrase from my old university lecturer, the late great Stan Cohen — is that we have created a new ‘moral panic’ in our response to COVID-19.
A moral panic is a widespread fear, often a disproportionate one, that someone (the so-called ‘folk devils’) or something is a threat to the safety of society. The reaction can often create the phenomenon itself (see also Labelling Theory). Typically, these panics are perpetuated by the mass media, fuelled by politicians, and often result in new laws or regulations that target the source of the panic and foster increased social control. The keys stages and ‘actors’ in the moral panic are presented below.
Moral panics can also exacerbate the real and perceived differences and divisions between groups of people. They offer a mutually beneficial relationship between news media and the state. The media benefits from increased viewership while the state can enact legislation and laws that would seem illegitimate without the presence of a perceived threat.
There have been numerous moral panics throughout time, with themes from some remaining embedded in political and social discourse. Two such recent panics are the perceived threats from HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus / acquired immune deficiency syndrome) in the 1980s and Islamic terrorism in the post-9/11 era.
HIV / AIDS
Though it is believed that AIDS existed prior to the 1980s it was not until the early 1980s that the epidemic was announced in the western world, with differing theories of how it spread. Due to initial cases being diagnosed in the homosexual community, AIDS was initially referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). As media hysteria grew, the disease was referred to as the ‘gay plague’, which further stigmatised the disease. This was a label and mistaken association that remained for some years after.
Sensationalist press reporting developed into anti-gay campaigns which amplified homophobia and resulted in discrimination. Mass public health media campaigns were introduced to raise awareness of the disease and influence public behaviour. Due to the nature of the disease and how transmission was reported to occur, the public were encouraged to get tested for the disease and to practice ‘safe sex’ with new partners to prevent the spread of HIV.
Islamic Terrorism after 9/11
Following the September 11 attacks in New York and 7/7 bombings in London, a widespread fear of terrorism occurred in the western world. Both attacks were reported to have been carried out by associated members of the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda.
Following 9/11, the Unites States declared a War on Terror and, with combined forces from the United Kingdom, invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Despite the scourge of war, the Iraq invasion was justified by the later unfounded presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Under this premise, WMD became the archetype of a modern propaganda campaign. At home, new counter-terrorism measures and legislation were introduced in the wake of the attacks.
During this period of heightened fear and anxiety, there was a dramatic increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs. Subsequent ‘Islamic terrorist’ attacks over the past decade in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Parsons Green have heightened these fears in England and contributed to the rise in Islamophobia and far-right anti-Muslim political activism.
Parallels can be drawn between the moral panics of AIDS, the War on Terror and the COVID-19 pandemic. The discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 virus posed an existential threat to mankind evoking war-time mass-hysteria. It was immediately apparent to some, including this author, that the response to the perceived threat was disproportionate to the risk. However, the damage from the mass-media fear-inducing campaign had taken effect and one-year on the impact has not abated.
Much of the messaging in the media campaigns around COVID-19 has sought to use fear to persuade the public to follow the guidelines. The hard-hitting mantra ‘Stay Home — Protect the NHS — Save Lives’ has been effective in persuading people to do just that, but sadly and tragically lives have been lost. Daily reports of deaths from coronavirus, albeit within 28 days of a positive test (if you read the small print) and escalating case numbers do little to inspire confidence in the public.
Numerous draconian rules, regulations and legislative acts have been introduced under the banner of tackling coronavirus. Many have been introduced using sketchy evidence and in the absence of risk assessments. Families have been kept apart, holidays have been made illegal and businesses have been closed, all impacting on people’s well-being and livelihoods. Once such powers are introduced it is hard to envisage them being repealed.
AIDS and the War on Terror gave rise to homophobia and islamophobia. So, who are the ‘folk devils’ of COVID-19? The pandemic has impacted on certain groups in society to a greater extent than others. Data suggests that ethnic minority groups are at greater threat from coronavirus. Whilst this is most likely due to socio-economic factors it could be perceived by some that such groups pose a greater risk to the rest of society. 2020 has been a very divisive year along racial lines with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following events in the United States. So-called ‘conspiracy theories’ around the source of the pandemic have also resulted in anti-Asian racism. The impact of lockdowns has benefitted the wealthy while increasing hardship for the poor. Similarly, many of the COVID-related restrictions do not apply to all groups in society with loopholes for business travel and elite sport.
The public health messaging around coronavirus tells us that ‘anyone can spread it’ but with the many, often confusing, rules to adhere to, it appears some could spread it more than others. For instance, the wearing of face coverings was made mandatory in public places in July 2020 and while there were exemptions in place, these were not well publicised. As a result, anxiety and victimisation has been experienced by the vulnerable in society, including those with physical or mental illness, impairment, or disability. Non-mask wearing is still broadly frowned upon despite these exemptions.
Those not following the guidelines are blamed for subsequent rises in COVID-19 cases, fatalities and the re-imposition of societal restrictions, often with no evidential justification. The mass roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination has coincided with a new mass-media campaign, often targeting groups in which there is increased vaccine hesitancy. Those not wishing to receive the vaccine are labelled under the banner of ‘anti-vaxxers’ regardless of their reasoning. The proposals to introduce ‘vaccine passports’ or ‘COVID certificates’ threaten to cause further societal division whilst simultaneously imposing further social controls.
Despite the notion that “we’re all in this together’, it is evident that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly divisive. Those opposing the response to the threat of coronavirus have been criminalised for exercising their right to protest despite there being no link between spikes in cases and these events. There is not enough evidence about the spread of the virus to justify the imposed restrictions to control it, while at the same time not enough is known about the effectiveness of measures to treat the disease to confidently remove those restrictions. Thus creating the perfect dichotomy for a divisive government drunk on power.
This articled was first published 8 April 2021.