Like many people, I am interested in information about COVID-19. I read news and journal articles about the pandemic and the scientific communities prescribed methods of handling it. I follow the debates about masks and the realness of the disease. I watch people flood beaches and vacation as though the virus isn’t spreading. I listen to people who are offended by mask recommendations and to those who are firmly convinced the virus is a hoax or a tool for control. And I wonder: why do people disbelieve science and medical experts in favor of opinions, and conspiracy theories that may be more dangerous than the virus?
How COVID-19 is Challenging American Acceptance of Death
Conspiracy theories abound when people have trouble handling truth, especially truths that create uncertainty. That a disease could bring a country as powerful as America to a halt is hard to swallow. Getting information from government entities some have been taught to distrust makes the information itself suspect. Perhaps sometimes the lack of information about something new and unknown induces fear so people cope by leaning on what they believe is solid and stable. Sometimes people just don’t want to believe something is happening because it challenges or negates their belief system, forcing them to adjust their world view to a new perspective. It’s much easier to believe (or even create) information that supports the views you hold already.*
Other reasons conspiracies gain hold in a population include*:
- Fear of unfamiliar people and organizations (while believing familiar people, like relatives and friends),
- Lack of education (more educated people trust science, history, fact driven data)
- Support of pre-existing beliefs, world views, and philosophies (meaning anything that contradicts those belief cannot be right)
- Social media usage (trusting familiar sources, even though you may not know them, despite inaccurate information), and
- Living in isolation that encourages connection via social media (see above).
Psychologists also believe that conspiracy theories abound because of the anxiety and fear pandemics spark tests people’s ability to control the world around them. Pandemics highlight the lack of control we truly have over the natural world, the virus, and its spread. Such conspiracy theories also reinforce personal beliefs and world views during times of uncertainty. If the scientific data and prescribed actions don’t align with how a person views illness or perhaps religion (i.e., what a god will or won’t allow to happen) or even politics and political motivations, the conspiracy theory will. Thus, downplaying the seriousness of the virus (as a human-made hoax) allows people to avoid the precautionary measures experts encourage, like social distancing or mask wearing, without guilt or fear.**
I would add one more reason to the explanations of why the refusal to accept the threat of COVID-19 and the suggested precautionary measures in favor of conspiracy theories: the American population is discomforted with (and even denial about) death.
A CBS News poll from 2014 says that fifty-four percent of people don’t spend time thinking about their death, thirty-one percent spend some time thinking about it, and fourteen percent of the population think about their death frequently.
Although the poll is six years old at this point, I doubt the numbers have changed much in that time. The bottom line is that Americans are massively uncomfortable with the reality of death and don’t want to talk about death.
While death used to be a more common subject of conversation and a process experienced by an entire family at home, death has been outsourced to medical professionals meaning family is little involved in palliative care and can avoid the dying process (and the death) altogether if they wish. We have spent about a century hiding death away, which has transformed death into an enemy we must vanquish, and consequently we have lost touch with the reality that death happens to us all. In our contemporary view, doctors are supposed to save everyone. Medicine and various tech innovations are supposed to keep us living forever. Or at least make it possible for us to return from death in the future.***
Our medical community is also ill-equip to accept death as a viable option when a patient is diagnosed with a treatable disease. Doctors may ignore their patient’s desire to live out the rest of their lives without a tangle of tubes and machines pumping them full of meds to keep them alive. It isn’t that the patient wants to die. Rather, they want to enjoy the beauty of the life they have left to live while they can. ****
Peter Lawler suggests two reasons for the American denial of death. First, urbanization has helped push death farther away from daily life. When American life was mostly rural, people were more used to seeing death as a natural part of the life cycle, especially when dinner wasn’t purchased from the grocery store but was killed during the day and served later that night. Second, Americans rarely live in multi-generational homes any longer, thereby distancing us from death and the dying process. Retirement homes and hospice have removed active participation in aging and preparation in end of life care.*****
Although inevitable, death is an uncertainty that upends people’s philosophical view of life. Death is a reminder that life is truly out of our control and that no amount of prosperity or worldly success can stop death from coming. Death comes when it wants to, not when we have completed everything we yearn to do in life. Death is indiscriminate, no one can buy their way out of death (though perhaps some can buy more time with better access to hospice and health care).
America is supposed to be exceptional, and the exceptional cannot be susceptible to an uninvited guest such as death. For a culture that likes to believe it is in control of everything, death presents a massive challenge to that control. And that challenge can be hard to accept.
In the context of a culture in denial about the ever-present possibility of death, accepting COVID-19 and the precautions that go along with it (mask wearing and social distancing) means accepting that there is something more powerful than us in our immediate environment. And it can kill us. Facing death as a healthy (i.e., uninfected) person can be difficult. It is far easier to project strength and invincibility than accept (and admit) you could contract a virus and die or be responsible for passing it on to others who may die. Many people highlight the low risk of death as a reason not to comply with masking and social distancing, therefore denying the risk the virus poses not just to their lives, but the lives of others as well.
What bothers me most about masking refusals and virus deniers is this: denial and refusal to comply with health care mandates where only you suffer the consequences is one thing; denial and refusal to comply with health care mandates that will save others who are more vulnerable that you is shameful.
Our cultural belief in invincibility and exceptionalism lays an unhelpful veil over our citizenry that obscures the fact that we have a population of elderly, immunocompromised, and high-risk people who are counting on the healthy population to help protect them. Our willingness to truly help others, to prioritize the health and safety of strangers is non-existent. We have over-emphasized individuality and are erasing any notion of community that may have resided in America. This is also a major flaw in our understanding of grieving and mourning.
Grief supporters encourage the bereaved to move on from their grief with the same disregard for communal responsibility that possesses mask and virus deniers. A griever reminds grief supporters of unpleasantness and death in the same way masks and a legitimate health threat remind people of vulnerability and death. Both situations call us to set aside our beliefs about life and death, and to sit with others whose proximity to death is unnerving.
Masking and social distancing are about sharing compassion with those members of the human community who are more vulnerable to an illness. Masking and social distancing are about being good citizens and valuing the lives of the more vulnerable in society. Masking and social distancing are about sacrifice for the sake of a stranger that you will never meet, but whose life you may hold in your hands anyway. Masking and social distancing are about loving others as we want to be loved ourselves. Masking and social distancing are practices that show others their life matters.
This is a difficult time regardless of the angle from which you examine things. By accepting that death can and will happen to all of us, we can begin to see when it shouldn’t happen, when it is preventable, and how we can help protect vulnerable people among us.
* https://finance.yahoo.com/news/conspiracy-theories-coronavirus-spread-why-people-believe-them-170902198.html ; https://time.com/3997033/conspiracy-theories/ ; https://www.liveabout.com/why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories-4142966