The longer the covid is with us, the more it seems John Calvin had a point. The 16th-century theologian and autocrat had a dismal view of human nature, writing in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that "perversity in us never ceases, but constantly produces new fruits."
These days, it's not the most stylish perspective.
But Lord, is it ever on the money.
I am reminded of this after reading a sociological study that found that exposing white Americans to information about racial disparities in health care lessened their empathy for those who suffered from the covid. It also lowered their fear of the disease and reduced their support for safety precautions against it.
Simply put, the more white people believed the covid was a problem for Black people and people of color, the less they cared about it.
That held true across the board for participants. Being a political conservative increased the effects, but even white liberals showed the same basic trend. The conclusions are as terse as they are grim:
Publicizing racial health disparities has the potential to create a vicious cycle wherein raising awareness reduces support for the very policies that could protect public health and reduce disparities.
The more you know, the less you care.
That's not quite true, fortunately.
Although participants reacted most negatively when fed articles emphasizing racial disparities in health care, the authors point out those articles don’t touch the history or causes of those disparities.
Evidence suggests people understanding the background of inequality react with more empathy and support greater measures to correct it.
Still, it's hard to escape the conclusion that once again, Whitey is cutting off his nose to spite his face.
It's in the nature of pandemics to be universal. Protecting other people is eventually a form of protecting ourselves. It might be natural to participate in "downward comparison," feeling more satisfied with one's current situation when compared to that of the less well-off, but it's ultimately not helpful as a disease sweeps across the nation.
Social scientists say downward comparisons and distancing oneself from others are a coping mechanism in response to threat. If I can convince myself the covid is somebody else's problem, it makes it easier to go about my day-to-day life, shriven of anxiety and fear.
So far, so natural – even if unpleasant.
Where things really take a turn toward the perverse is when underlying biases begin to seep out. For example:
During oral debates over the legality of Wisconsin's shelter-in-place order in May 2020, Governor Evers cited the 1,200 percent increase in COVID-19 cases within two weeks in one county. Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Roggensack interjected, arguing that the increase was isolated to the meatpacking plant and that it was not “just regular folks” (Flynn, 2020). Thus, the Chief Justice dismissed the outbreak among meatpacking plant workers (who are predominantly people of color) as irrelevant to the debate.
Once a policy question gets framed as a question of identity, it becomes very difficult to move people from their initial position.
Indeed, that's what we might be seeing in Wisconsin and many other states, where white rural areas show little, if any, interest in the covid vaccination or safety precautions.
That's not to say racism is the only reason rural folks don't care about the covid. It's more that for many, vaccination or risk mitigation is something "they" do, not something "we" do.
Race certainly plays a role, but it's not the only factor.
On the other hand, hate is also a coping mechanism. It's not just directed at racial minorities: a recent report from a Jewish group in Milwaukee says that antisemitic incidents are on the rise in Wisconsin, driven in part by people blaming Jews for the covid.
For a well-educated liberal like myself, it's astonishing that anyone could indulge in such wild, illogical conspiracy thinking. What possible motive could the Jewish community have to gin up a pandemic?
And yet here we are. Evidence suggesting people hold these views despite — or even because of — the evidence. Such is the bassackwardness of the human heart that when unfairness or injustice is pointed out, we're as liable to embrace it more firmly as we are to reject it, no matter how harmful it might be to our own well-being.
Calvin, a forerunner of the Enlightenment, knew well the connection of this perversity to a prideful ignorance. We have seen a rise in know-nothing politics in recent years. It flourished under the former president. But it's been brewing in the system for a long time.
Vicious attacks on teachers and school administrators during the Act 10 debates stunned Wisconsinites, but it was only the beginning of a long and ugly trend: other targets include climate scientists, journalists, FBI agents, CIA agents, diplomats, professors, election administrators, epidemiologists, finally down to the doctors, nurses and public health workers on the front lines of the covid fight.
You might properly frame the people on this list as anyone contradicting the GOP agenda. But it's also a list of people who know how to make American life better in big and small ways.
It's perhaps not a coincidence that many of these fields are dominated by professional women, another frequent target of bile and bias. Again, it's probably not a coincidence that many of those same fields are seeing massive outflows, as workers decide they can't take it anymore.
The far-right, which is creeping into the center of the Republican Party, seems happy to immiserate the nation if it means preserving their place in the social hierarchy. If only that were the end of it.
The people I most want to recognize from that long list of targets are the medical experts and the public health workers. Partly that's because it's National Public Health Week. (They're the people I work the most closely with.) Primarily these people have taken the lead in keeping the rest of us all alive. Yet they’ve been the focus of death threats, violence, and other abuse, driving many from the field.
It's one thing to decide a pandemic is none of your concern. It's another order of magnitude, however, to decide that, because it’s not your concern, it’s also not — and never should be — anyone else's.
Yet that's where we are after two years.
Like I said, maybe Calvin had a point.
The willingness to get us all killed if that's what it takes to preserve the racial status quo is truly a new, and deeply perverse, fruit.