In a recent post here, I asserted, “the title to Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, may apply to everything now, not least of which is the human behavior in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Well, as the current frenzy grows, that seems a gross understatement.
As recent events and global trends grow more ominous, they are reflected in elevated stress factors, not just the “normal” stresses of life. We know about the mental damage done to prisoners by solitary confinement. “Stay at home” orders attempting to quell the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have added new powerful stresses to our lives.
The stress of parents confined in close quarters with children and spouses, loss of socializing with friends, fear of going to the grocery store to find empty shelves and someone sneezing on you, all intensify social stress. The normal distractions of binge-watching one’s favorite TV series lose the interest of the homebound. These conditions affect diverse sub-populations in different ways and to different extents. In any case, stress is on the rise.
Earth System Chaos Intensifies
Despite the continued denial by some, climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, and a diverse set of instabilities, from local to global, have become increasingly obvious in the last couple of decades. Extreme weather events out of the ordinary range are more frequent and much more intense. Neither denial nor distraction can eliminate the consequent stress, even when people keep the growing chaos out of their immediate attention.
The stress inherent in the new great transformation of the Earth System and consequently in the societies that inhabit it pervades everything whether we recognize it or not. Avoidance of consciously recognizing stressful facts does not eliminate the stress.
Pandemic Panic and Denial
Despite his Trump-like demeanor and outlook, it is amazing to me that the president of Brazil can publicly proclaim that the COVID-19 pandemic is just another form of ordinary influenza. Trump tried to play that card at the beginning, asserting that it would soon just go away. However, the load of critical hospital admissions and deaths forced him to shift to claims that “we have it under control,” and assertions that we could “open the economy back up” by Easter. Well, that and a similar claim about Memorial Day went the way of fatalistic optimism.
Desperate to get people back to work before the November election, Trump performed like the sociopath he is. As he berated, demoted, sidelined or fired the experts whose facts and recommendations conflicted with his delusional desire for personal glory, the US death toll passed 100,000. Any psychiatrist will tell you that sociopaths or psychopaths (these two terms refer to the same syndrome) regularly abuse their subordinates, but are generally incapable of effective leadership of the organizations they control. Whatever one’s political persuasion, it is hard to ignore the fact that the pretend president failed to act on the documented threat and refused to implement the known methods to curtail a pandemic, in his obsessive distorted attention to his personal image and political prospects.
Most folks are now aware that the threat of the pandemic is far from over, even as governors under great political pressure or delusional abandon, allow restaurants, gyms, and beauty salons to open, in many cases today, June 1, 2020. A second wave of infections is bound to occur in the coming weeks. Many know this if only subliminally. The stress grows.
Murder in Minneapolis and So Much More
Police violence, especially against Black folks, is endemic to law enforcement agencies across the nation—a 400 year legacy of the earliest slave patrols and the national culture of racism. That was the source of the second amendment to the US Constitution. Racism and violence are endemic to the nation, despite the formal successes of the civil rights movement.
Despite the explicit video evidence made public through the media. The Minneapolis police department merely fired the four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd while on the ground in handcuffs. The firing of the officers was slightly more assertive than the response of most police authorities when officers kill a Black man. Yet, everyone knows that if a citizen committed such violence, arrest would be immediate. It is not difficult to understand the attitude that says, “Nothing has changed.” Systemic injustice and systemic racism perenially await resolution.
Ensuing events followed the typical pattern, if more intensely than in some other similar situations. Collective efforts at peaceful protest highlighted the institutional failures of law enforcement to confront its own failure to “protect and serve” all the people. Then, as in similar situations, it took only a few hard-core extremists to set off a wave off mass destruction and looting that sociologists call “collective behavior.”
Whether at a soccer game in England, or a peaceful protest in the US, a few nihilists can trigger a tipping point in a large crowd under stress to begin violence and destruction. When the society is already experiencing an unusually high level of stress, it is easy to break through the bounds of ordinary social order. The crowd collectively suspends the normal rules of conduct and begins to act collectively as one deranged individual.
Then, authorities must restore order before they can engage in any constructive redress of grievances. Once order returns, authorities do little to resolve the underlying problem. Instead, they appoint commissions to produce reports that the media will praise before they put the reports on the shelves of bureaucrats. As social stress continues to grow, the frenzy will return.