Empirical evidence indicates that the spread of pathogens leads populations to become more conformist and accepting of authoritarian behavior from governments – what does this mean for the world of COVID19?
As discussed in Multiple Studies Predicted Governments Become Authoritarian in Response to Pandemics, we have an abundance of scientific data highlighting how humans react to perceived threats and how that relates to the type of government the people will accept. I examined the study Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism, as well as other studies focused on the “parasite stress theory.”
The theory proposes that when a species faces parasites and diseases their values are shaped by the experience. In this context, “parasite” is used to refer to any pathogenic organism, including bacteria and viruses. The theory states that depending on how a disease stresses people’s development it can lead to differences in mating preferences and changes in culture. Proponents of the parasite stress theory also note that disease can alter the psychological and social norms of societies.
“According to a “parasite stress” hypothesis, authoritarian governments are more likely to emerge in regions characterized by a high prevalence of disease-causing pathogens,” the researchers wrote. They define authoritarian governance as “highly concentrated power structures that repress dissent and emphasize submission to authority, social conformity, and hostility towards outgroups.”
Due to the invisible nature of “disease-causing parasites,” attempts to control the spread of a disease “historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk.” The researchers also found that society tends to promote a collectivist worldview, favoring obedience and conformity from the population, in response to parasites.
Unfortunately, according to the parasite stress theory, humanity is prone to accepting violent behavior from governments during pandemics. As noted in Politics and Pathogens, the threat of exposure to a pathogen need not even be realistic for it to create a desire for conformity and obedience to authority.
The book The Parasite Stress Theory of Values and Sociality: Infectious Disease, History and Human Values Worldwide further outlines how populations respond to the uncertainty felt during pathogen spread. The authors discuss how reducing social prejudice and authoritarianism can be accomplished by emancipating people from infectious diseases. However, the authors also note that a government which desired more authoritarian powers – including “full-blown fascism or genocide” – could achieve this goal by “promoting widespread mortality and morbidity from infectious diseases.”