The original, longer version of this text (in Finnish) can be found at Verkko-Särö.
The infectious nature of Corona virus is also digital. The viral bubble around the virus is quite reminiscent of a postmodern version of dancing plague. What good can come out of this for the human community?
In the Middle Ages, Europe was conquered by a peculiar state called dancing plague that made people dance for days, even until their death. Explanations have varied from rheumatic inflammation and ergot poisoning, but the phenomenon has often also been described as a mass psychosis. Sociologist Robert Bartholomew points out that phenomena such as dance epidemic should not be lightly regarded psychiatric, because such a retrospective compartmentalization detaches phenomena from their local context and ignores how a strange-looking behavior can be related to culturally conditioned social roles. Perhaps a hundred years from now, anthropologists and sociologists will be trying to find out the deeper meaning of toilet paper memes and wonder why this virus became the main content covered by media for months. Perhaps Saint Vitus, the saint able to heal dancing mania, should turn his attention to the cousin of the Corona virus, the equivalent Internet epidemic: mass hysteria and discourses oozing Besserwisserness and oversimplifications.
Modern dancing mania does not lead people to recklessly squirm at the Strasbourg market place; the virality of the Corona epidemic is digital. The concept of ” viral ” – a message, image, video, meme or other phenomenon spreading very quickly, especially on the Internet – goes back to medicine and microbiology. The virus invades the host cell where its genetic material is replicated and starts to spread through the daughter cells. Hannu Salmi, who has studied virality, writes how almost any online phenomenon can change into something rapidly contagious, when the disease is carried further by people sharing messages while the algorithms increase the infection by ensuring that benevolent recipients and potential sharers get the bug.
We are living in a Corona bubble: The more we click on the Corona news, the more they are being distributed to us. A surprisingly large number of people get their “news” on social media, and the Corona discourse swells in directions that have very little to do with the virus itself and its medical-social reality. This bug offers an endless reservoir of opportunities to present oneself and one’s inner group morally and intellectually superior to other individuals, groups, or entire nations.
In Finland, that womb of earthy common sense, it is believed that morality is the same as tranquility, rationality, and we all working together for a common goal. Hysteria and carelessness are surging elsewhere, we Finns are as calm as the backs of our 187 888 lakes, we find out the facts, follow the government’s recommendations, stay home with our laptop and canned food, and cheer on the health staff in social media. When the President of the Republic declares that the virus is serious and urges citizens to cough into their sleeves, people praise the wise head of the country. Just by using the expression “serious thing” you are able to present yourself as a decent human being. Moreover, a person who claims something is “serious” cannot be accused of being a hysteric, nor of the most terrible of crimes: not taking the Corona virus seriously.
I asked my Italian boyfriend whether the Italian press constantly emphasizes the nation’s cooperation. The answer was a burst of laughter. The local press tends to underline how all other countries look up to Italy’s efforts to tackle the pandemic. Ma Jian writes in The Guardian how Chinese authorities have urged journalists to replace negative content with touching stories of front-line professionals fighting against the pandemic. CGTN‘s propaganda documentary, ” The Lockdown: One Month in Wuhan“, shows brave doctors and nurses struggling to curb the virus and stresses repeatedly that the hospital staff has food to eat. The nature of the communication does not seem to open up to the general public; instead, the news coverage that would make the Soviet Union’s propaganda section green with envy is commented with tearful greetings to the Chinese.
Sociology and anthropology have shown how the detection and interpretation of risk is fundamentally embedded in a social and cultural factors context and intermediated by friends, family, colleagues and authorities. According to professor of psychology Paul Slovic, who has studied risk conceptions, scientific evidence has very little opportunity to be influence human risk assessments, as people’s original conceptions resist change while guiding the subsequent processing of information. Slovic writes that experts’ risk assessments focus on the risk of death caused by a specific threat, but lay people perceive the risks in a different way: the less known they are, the newer and more difficult to detect the threat is and the more delay there is in its effects, the more people want the risks to be limited by strict regulations given by authorities. L Articles that are too scientific and emphasize uncertainty, do not attract readers -desiccated professors shall remain in the corner, while the Responsible Government stands in the forefront and protects us all. According to Slovic, the psychological reaction of the people to the threats is why politicians are required to do something. Sometimes that “something” does not make any medical sense at all.
It is through social media that we can seemingly control the Corona and act in relation to it. We get the feeling that we have done our bit when we share hand washing instructions and petitions to stay indoors. We can experience moral superiority by condemning others and distributing hilarious videos of Italians singing on their balconies as a gesture of goodwill to raise the general mood. We can feel that we are part of a community that fights against Corona. However, behavior in the online world is quite different from behavior in the outside world, and a person’s talk about what he or she does has little to do with how he or she actually behaves. A human being is a walking bundle of paradoxes. He wears a breathing mask on his face and constantly rubs his eyes with his hands.
David Roberts argues that the virus poses a whole new challenge to an authoritarian leader like Trump, because the invisible threat is not as easy as an individual or a nation to make into the target of projected hatred. Trump has spoken about “Wuhan virus” or “China virus”, but a call for a different discourse has now flushed even up to the strands of the Republican Party: caretaking and solidarity.
Maybe this is the good we can take from this pandemic: a new budding time of solidarity. The Coronavirus is linked to unsustainable human activity on earth, which will continue to pose challenges to global healthcare and production chains. Collective reflection and change in the shared consciousness will take time, but the fact that the Western world invites each other to sit down for a moment and think about other people instead of fixating at their own navel is probably a good first step. We can only wash our hands and hope that St. Vitus is still in position to guard over us.
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