It is impossible to avoid the Coronavirus panic. In recent weeks everyone wanted to talk about the plague and its consequences. The media was all obsessed about the numerical data of the disease, with most interviewers suggesting or even saying explicitly that the Chinese must be hiding or even lying about them. On one channel, I even got a proposition to do an article about the Chinese food habits and their contribution to the spread of the virus. The feeling is that the Chinese people are entitled to very little empathy for their situation, and the criticism and alienation towards them is unprecedented in relation to outbreaks of epidemics elsewhere in the past.
Is the denunciation justified? Tens of millions of Chinese are closed up in their homes, calculating how much food and equipment they have, just to keep their families out of the disease and prevent it from spreading. The Chinese government has sacrificed the country’s economy and has taken unseen measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The Chinese government even seems to be making great efforts to refute the assumption that information coming from China cannot be relied upon: official updates of current figures are regularly published, the World Health Organization has stated that the Chinese government is committed to preventing the epidemic and to cooperating with other countries on the issue and even US Vice President Mike Pence praised China for its transparency.
Just as a reference, on April 2009 the H1N1 (swine flu) virus was first detected in the US. According to CDC estimation up to 575,000 people died during the first year the virus was circulated. The numbers reported at the time were nowhere near that. No one raised the speculation that the US government was hiding numbers, the reasons to such underestimation can be numerous: shortage of manpower, real time diagnostical difficulties, overcrowded hospitals, and so on. The question now is why a nation that is going through such difficult time, its people acting courageously to survive it, is alienated and in fact, has to deal with the ricochets from outside as much as its own private war of survival.
Cognitive psychology has an explanation
The human tendency is to paint the world in black and white. Our brains like to think in the form of “either … or” because it makes it easier to process information. A person is either good or bad, a friend or foe. The most effective way to deal with complexity and ambiguity is to associate objects, events and people with categories.
An example of this is in Dr. David Eagleman’s study, which looked at the minds of subjects while watching a video showing six hands, each with the labeling of a certain group: atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Scientologists, while the needle randomly stabs one of the hands. The results were repeated over and over. When the subject watched a person from his group stabbed, there was a sharp increase in activity in the pain areas, but when the hand was associated with a person from an outside group, complete indifference to the pain was demonstrated.
That is, it seems that a single affiliation label is enough. Our brains are wired to categorize who belongs to the group and who is not and the more distanced we are from a group, for example a person from China versus a person from the West, the stronger the bias will be. Prejudice has emerged as a function of shared life in groups. Although life in the group promotes our survival, the fear of being harmed by someone external to the group has led to the development of a mechanism that allows identifying who belongs to the group and who is not. Over time, the rapid filtering process becomes automatic and unconscious. Therefore, even people who care about social equality show hidden negative tendencies towards other groups.
When we hear about a new virus coming from China, it is much easier to speculate, and believe speculations, that correspond with our labeling. Life is easier and clearer when the world is still organized in the way we expected it to be. However, in order to make the right decision, it is important to go deeper and determine which of our basic assumptions is fact-based and knowledgeable, and which are the result of biases that are not necessarily relevant or correct. The people of China are going through a difficult time, and act with great courage to survive it together, don’t turn your backs on them now.
The article was written in cooperation with Dr. Liraz Margalit, Cognitive Psychology Specialist, Behavioral Researcher in the Digital Age, Interdisciplinary Center.