Fear, Insecurity, Suspicion and Grief. Feelings in the Time of a Pandemic

Karolina Wigura · 26 April 2021
Prison, wrote the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky, is essentially a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time. A similar case could be made for social isolation during in the Covid-19 era, albeit in relative terms. So much has already been said about this isolation in the context of hygiene, the economy and politics, but it is now time to develop an adequate language at the human level.

The New Normal

It is puzzling to me how often I hear questions like: “What are you going to do after the quarantine?” or “What is the post-covid-19 world going to be like?”. As if we all thought that we are currently living in some sort of “non-times”, a break between one normal and another.

And yet the history of past epidemics suggests that the course of events may be quite different. The Black Death became so engrained in European history in the 14th and 15th centuries that people took its return for granted and prepared themselves as much as possible. One of the episodes of the disease lasted not one year, as the plague of the Spanish flu in the 20th century, but a whole seven years. So, it might be therefore propitious to treat the time we are in not as preparation for a new normal, but as the new normal.

It is exactly in the midst of this new normal that we should ask a question about its impact on our feelings. What do we feel in during our social quarantining? How do we experience the practical application of the #stayathome hashtag? What feelings accompany us as we try to make sense of what is happening and look to the future?

Emotions First 

Naming emotions is important, although we may not be used to it. Emotions do not so much form a part of our social and political reality, as precede it, laying its foundations. The relationships between people, whether in families, local communities or in society at large, are based on our emotions.

Naming the feelings that we experience is not reinventing the wheel. Although you may hear about a new theory or concept every once in a while, we instead reach into the vault of already available resources.

Looking into cultural texts about epidemics in European history may help us to some extent. Just look at the popularity of Camus’ “Plague” in recent weeks! While times change, human nature is not transformed. That is why we can read the works of other classics, such as those by Thucydides or Bocaccio, as if looking in a mirror today. For the purpose of this short essay, written during the Covid-19 pandemic, I chose three emotions from a wide spectrum, described by the classics: fear, suspicion and insecurity.

Fear of Death, Your Neighbour and Disease

The first of this triad – fear – was the topic of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War”. When a terrible disease, capable of decimating the population, reaches Athens, terrified citizens completely change their way of life. Fear of imminent death, almost certain if one becomes infected, causes some Athenians to lock themselves in their homes. Many of the sick die alone. With no one to care about the rule of law, the political community collapses. Boccaccio likewise writes about fear in “The Decameron”, this time in the context of fear of another human being, particularly a neighbour, especially if someone is sick in the house next door.

Ancient history? Unfortunately, not. Today, too, we empathize with many of these descriptions of fear. A few weeks ago, the US media reported a case in which someone attacked a passer-by with a walking stick for walking too close and not adhering to social distancing rules. In Poland, we had reports of acts of vandalism against property of people in quarantine, such as attacks on their cars.

Mass media have also extensively covered economically motivated fear, related to crisis, unemployment, poverty or lack of means of subsistence. When asked about the best analogy for coronavirus, the writer Darko Suvin responded that it is not SARS, but rather “the year 1929, without Leninism”. In terms of social impact, the current pandemic could, in his opinion, primarily hurt the wallets, loans and living standards of people all around the world. Compared to 1929, the difference is that today there is no economic alternative to capitalism – which is a cause of concern for many people on the left.

However, the Polish experience is still dominated by the legacy of communism rather than by widespread fears of capitalism. People tend not to believe in top-down help and are trying – with better or worse results – to cope on their own, or with help from their community, family or charities. Such a reality is borne out by Jerzy Owsiak’s ad hoc attempt to address the lack of masks in the country.

In a Web of Suspicion

The second of the three emotions – suspicion – can also be found on the pages of books from the past. There are testimonies of pogroms against Jews due to rumours of their responsibility for the Black Death as early as the 14th century. Thucydides also begins his tale on Athens during an epidemic by mentioning different groups suspected of bringing the plague, chief among them the inhabitants of the Peloponnese, who were said to have poisoned the wells.

Just as then, conspiracy theories are now piling up in the public’s perception of the epidemic, such as preposterous allegations abound on the internet against Jews and the Chinese, who are both alleged to have conspired to spread the disease globally whilst, contrary to their public statements, possessing a cure for it. This feeds on centuries-old anti-Semitic prejudices, along with also relatively newer (19th century) fears of the “Yellow Peril” coming from Asia. Here, one should keep in mind the – unfortunately – negative stereotype of Poles that still pervade in many countries. We should be acutely aware that in some places we ourselves can become scape goats, blamed for the pandemic.

Difficult Questions

The third emotion – insecurity – in past testimonies of epidemics often took the form of fear connected with the collapse of the rule of law and the departure of people from culture in general; their animalisation, manifested, for example, in their refusal to bury the dead according to accepted rites.

Today, one can sense insecurity in the oft repeated questions about whether it is right to prioritise some of the sick over others. At the height of the pandemic in Italy, there was a vociferous debate over whether the elderly should be denied respirators. The “New York Times” pondered the question of whether any criteria could be defined for deciding who should be treated when there are six sick people and only one drug dose. Would it be better to help one person among them who needs the entire dose or share it among the other five, who only need a small bit each? What are the grounds for deciding who should be left to die and who should be saved? Some governments are now establishing bio-ethics committees to provide answers to such questions.

Change and Loss

So much for reflecting on earlier testimony of the epidemic. But even today we have vernaculars that can help name the emotions that are important in these times.

One of the sciences that can help us name the emotions we are feeling is modern neurobiology and research in this discipline tells us a lot about how our brains react to change.

Change is obviously a natural part of human life. We go through stages in life. We mature and age, meet new people and part with others, find new jobs and lose old ones, move to other places, lose old habits and develop new ones. Our brains have adapted to cope with such changes gradually. However, when change happens too quickly, and is compounded by a lack of definitions, social framework or vocabulary to talk about it, it becomes very difficult for us. We experience a painful sense of loss, and grief, just as if someone dear to us had just died.

This is what is currently happening to us as human collectives. For some, loss in the time of coronavirus might concern losing one’s employment and – as a consequence – a certain quality of life. For everyone, it means cutting off old habits, ways of being with other people, and methods we have developed to maintain emotional balance, etc. For women, quarantine restrictions also mean a loss of status. Working from home with children constantly present is a loss of support institutions: nurseries, kindergartens and schools. Indeed, this may represent a powerful setback for the achievements of the women’s movement and legal equality for women and men.

The world has changed rapidly around us, but we are yet to fully grasp the meaning of this change. To some extent, the age of coronavirus is reminiscent of the moment immediately following the 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. We know that the world around us has undergone a radical change. As a result, many people experience a particular sense of confusion, mixed emotions of anger and sadness, sometimes interrupted by hope for a better future.

From Grief to Politics

Some compare this farewell to the old world to a sense of grief. Experts in this phenomenon, like the American David Kessler, describe it as follows: first denial (“This virus does not apply to me, I will certainly not get infected”), then anger (“How dare the politicians force me to stay at home and change my whole life?!”), followed by bargaining: (“Well, I will stay home for two weeks, but I will then go back to my regular work, ok?”), then sadness (“I do not know when it will end, it is unbearable”) and finally acceptance (“So this is really happening, I have to figure out how to live with it”). Reaching the last stage is not easy – nor do the stages follow any strict order. Rather, they blend together, recurring in a constant rush of thoughts. I can say personally that I certainly have not reached the last stage yet.

All of these observations should be of particular relevance for public figures, including politicians as those who build communication using collective emotions as a basis. If the main emotions we feel in the age of coronavirus are fear, suspicion, insecurity and grief, we urgently need to rethink political responses to them, for example from the current Polish opposition.

Which leadership model should be adopted? How can fear be transformed into courage? How can insecurity be turned into creativity? How can we experience hope without denying grief? These are the four questions faced by all politicians, irrespective of their political affiliation and location. It would behove liberal democrats to learn from their mistakes and not to leave our feelings, which drive politics, for illiberal populists to manage and manipulate.


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