2020 was marked by a series of serious international tensions. We had a geopolitical crisis in the Middle East due to the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and threats of war between the United States and Iran, an intensification of the trade war between the U.S and China and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia on the price barrel of oil on the international market.
However, no such crisis will be as impactful for the current generation as the coronavirus pandemic. Since it appeared in China, SARS-Cov-2, also called COVID-19, has spread around the world extremely quickly due to the intercommunication of the global value chains and population flows and caused a complete collapse of the globalized economic system in which we lived until then.
Many people are concerned about the long-term effects of this pandemic. How will it impact employment? How will it affect the way we organize the international economy? How will the global value chains look after this? How will people react after the pandemic? What will be the social and cultural impacts of this disease?
In any case, what is taken for granted is that the world will be quite different after the end of the pandemic.
Most people generally tend to focus on the economic consequences. However, what few people seem to be noticing is that the virus can have effects that go beyond our physical and financial health. Germs and parasites can affect the way we organize our public life, how our legal and political institutions work and, in short, the entire social order of a nation.
It was not uncommon, already in March, the appearance of "coronavirus dictatorships" across the globe. Here I am not making a typical hysterical libertarian reference that lockdowns are new forms of techno-fascism. In several countries, political leaders have acquired emergency powers, almost total, in the face of the danger posed by the disease. In Hungary, the parliament endorsed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to govern by decree (that is, pass measures, including that of closing the parliament, without the prior approval of members of the legislature) until July, but even today (2021) he seeks to continue the "emergency". In the Philippines, parliament has strengthened President Rodrigo Duterte's powers and he now has broad control over the state budget and has the power to freely punish anyone who deems a violator of quarantine measures. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given itself emergency powers, without consulting parliament, which include coercive measures to enforce quarantine and spying over citizens. In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government also used the pandemic to gain special powers, which it readily used to arrest political opponents and, as was clear at the end of last year, to crack down on student protests against the current regime of the country.
This relationship between disease and authoritarian measures may seem strange to some. Why would there be a relationship between these two things?
But, strange as it may be, there is a relation. Sociobiologists and economists have been warning about this for a long time. To understand this relationship, we have to look at the "roots" of humanity.
Humans and parasites (including germs) evolved in an evolutionary arms race. Infectious diseases are significant causes of natural selection in all forms of life, from a dogs to a bacterium. However, for Homo sapiens, disease selection has been the predominant cause of evolutionary change. While other species have their evolutionary changes caused, in large part, by predators, climate change, food scarcity, etc, humans have a single microscopic predator.
Evidence points out that the genes responsible for the immune system, particularly those in the MHC family, show more allelic variations than other groups of genes (Clark 2010). In addition, they point out that parasites are more responsible for genomic selection than any other environmental factor; from climate change to ecological catastrophes.
In that fight, casualties occurred on both sides. In "primitive" human societies about 50% of all deaths were caused by disease and it mainly affected the youngest members of the clusters. In return, human beings developed cells and drugs to exterminate several of this small invaders. This is generally known to anyone with a little knowledge of human biology.
What few people know is that humans have two natural defense systems against parasites. The first is the classic immune system: the biochemical, physiological, cellular and tissue agents that defend the organism against invasions. This is the system responsible for producing antibodies, NK cells, macrophages and lymphocytes.
The second is the immune-behavioral system: the set of behaviors developed by human beings to deal with contamination. As Thornhill and Fincher (2014) put it, humans, in addition to developing antibodies to deal with parasites in their local ecosystems, created a series of cultural habits, “extended phenotypes”, to deal with them. Since the majority of pathogens are invisible to eye and since for almost all history we have lived without the scientific method, most human groups have developed a series of rituals, customs and habits to deal with epidemic crises. The group members, seeing one of their sick, began to avoid them, to isolate them from the rest to avoid being contaminated. They came to realize that feces and secretions often led to infection of other individuals when they were too close. They found that certain habits, such as regular bathing or treating food before consumption (salting, smoking, fermentation and washing), could prevent large portions of the group from becoming ill.
These behaviors are no surprise to the medical community. It is already common knowledge that the cultural habits of certain communities affect the way a treatment develops and its degrees of relative efficiency. In the recent case of coronavirus, some countries have better contained the spread of the disease because of the cultural habits of their people. East Asians, for example, has managed to better contain the disease because its population already wear masks, avoid physical contact and adopt hand and throat hygiene habits as a common custom compared to countries like Italy and Spain, where the people have cultural habits of physical contact as a way of socializing, are extremely festive and like to talk close to each other.
In the course of evolution, it was this development of our immune-behavioral system that created certain natural defense reactions. Our repulsion at death scenes, feces, secretions, rotten food and certain odors (which other animals do not feel) and our hygiene habits are products of this psychobiological response to ecological risks. Those who did not develop this throughout our evolution died early or were socially excluded ("lepers" are perhaps the best example of this).
But the immuno-behavioral system generates more than repulsion for secretion. It has side effects that profoundly influence the very way we organize our societies.
An example is how it affects the way we treat those who violate certain rules of common conduct, traditions. These people, in general, are socially excluded and considered "a risk" to the rest of society for trying to undermine order. This aversion to “degenerate” people is explained by the risk aversion behavior, since the breaking of a tradition can mean a risk of that society's collapse (Clark 2010).
Another example is how it affects our relationship with foreigners. During the course of human evolution, members of a group or tribe have learned to distrust members of other groups because, among other things, they represent health risks. These individuals represented the risk of introducing a parasite from another location for which the individuals in the group do not have an immediate immune response and, therefore, a risk to the social order. Before the invention of health insurance, the only way for human beings to deal with the risks arising from information asymmetry in relation to the health of others was through discrimination between individuals on the basis of "belonging criteria". Recent research has shown that this evolution of human clusters, of isolation and risk identification in individuals of "another group", has caused in different cultures the names of animals that transmit diseases ("rat", "slug", "leech", “worm”, etc.) were attributed to foreigners, freak people or apparently sick ( Suedfeld e Schaller 2002 ).
This distinctive aspect of our history as a social species is quite notorious and is far from being characteristic of our primitive ancestors. This behavioral risk aversion mechanism still manifests itself in human beings whenever a crisis occurs that puts one group at risk to the detriment of another. Jedwab et.al (2017), for example, concluded that exogenous negative shocks, such as an economic crisis, war or pandemic, can increase incentives for the persecution of minorities. The decision to pursue or not a minority, according to the researchers, will depend on the magnitude of the shock and its interaction with the utility gained by the tolerance of the given minority within the community. Thus, the persecution of a minority will depend on whether its marginal presence benefit over time outweighs the relative costs of the negative shock.
A good illustration of this are the pogroms (systematic persecutions against Jews) carried out during the time of the Black Death. When the plague began to claim the lives of thousands within cities without an apparent causal response, Christian citizens started to seek a scapegoat; an object on which they could pour out their doubts and fear. The group chosen to serve as such were the Jews. Citizens began to blame residents of Jewish ghettos for poisoning wells or spreading their "disease" or "worms" among the Christian population as some form of revenge. Apart from those cities where Jews played a vital role in providing financial services, such as the Italian city-states or the imperial cities of the Holy-Roman Empire, the overall result was an increase in the persecution and execution of Jews.
This demonstration of brutality is not an isolated historical episode, but a component of, if you wish to call it, "human nature". This behavioral mechanism is still in our heads and the primitive instinct of aversion to strangers can be reactivated whenever the organism deems it necessary. Faulkner et.al (2004), for example, show that, when faced with the possibility of lethal contagion and a mere rumor that the vector is a foreigner, people in open experiments become more aggressive towards foreigners and minority groups . In the case of COVID-19, it has become increasingly clear that the scapegoat of the time, of course, are asians; since the virus is identified as "their responsibility".
This response from our psychobiological system reveals the ancestral roots of our politics. The reason that, when faced with economic crises or other risky situations, human beings tend to blame someone or seek to “cleanse the system's diseases and imperfections” has its origins in our standard response in nature to what we do not know or see. The immuno-behavioral response shows, for example, the roots of extreme nationalism and ethnocentrism. Navarrette and Fessler (2006), postulating that immune-defensive behavior would lead to intergroup reactions and testing in a group of 90 people between 18 and 61 years old, found that, when faced with situations of epidemiological risk, people demonstrate responses of positive intragroup statement. The characteristics, traditions, of the group are strengthened and exalted as responses to the wrong behavior of another group.
However, much more than the development of our political behavior, the immuno-behavioral system can affect the way we organize our political institutions.
This is generally a controversial topic. In general, people like to get rid of geographical or biological determinism by saying that none of these factors influence the development of human societies. This is what we can call institutional determinism: formal institutions and culture can explain the progress or failure of nations alone. This is indeed a careless generalization that does not match what exists within the body of scientific knowledge.
Some geographic factors can hinder the development of some nations, such as: the fragility or low fertility of the soil, prevalence of agricultural pests and diseases in livestock, excessive respiration of plants and low photosynthesis, high evaporation or unstable water supplies, high transport costs and ecological conditions favoring the development of human diseases (Bloom et.al 1998). A classic case of the impact of environmental factors on development is the so-called natural resources curse. Countries with large deposits of natural resources tend to be more authoritarian, as the revenues earned from these resources allow a government official to purchase greater control of the population via welfare measures and of the bureaucracy via employee corruption. Thus, with this financial control against any opposition, this regimes can expand their political control beyond what would be possible at a normal level of optimal corruption. Countries with oil reserves, for example, have historically been autocratic regimes with broad population control.
It is not just minerals that affect the development of political institutions, human biology as well. And, above all, the immuno-behavioral system. Anthropological evidence and group experiments show that those countries and cultures most affected by disease throughout their history tend to be less individualistic, show less openness to innovation and are more likely to be conformist to majority views. In addition, countries that have experienced some major crisis or pandemic have populations and cultures that are more centered on family ties, have greater cases of ethnic conflict and higher indicators of ethnocentrism and lower indicators of human freedom and democracy (Letendre et.al 2012).
As stated by Acemoglu et.al (2001), germs can affect the institutional development of countries. The authors state that this is quite visible in the natural experiment of European colonization in the Americas. In areas where local germs created high mortality rates among settlers, European conquerors had to introduce imported labor (slaves), since no one wanted to come to that land, and a centralized colonial administration focused on planting in large scale (abundant land factor and low productive plantations), which favored the development of extractive institutions. In regions with low mortality rates due to germs and parasites, however, colonists could occupy large portions of land with a much larger colonizing population. The lower prevalence of diseases also favored more decentralized management of small farms and more equal relations between different social groups. In this way, the latitudes where such diseases occur, such as the tropics, can determine the type of institutions that will emerge in those countries.
Easterly and Levine (2002), based on this research, concluded that latitude, temperature and germs will have an impact on economic development through their impact on institutional development. As they put it, if countries like Burundi had similar environments to Canada, their per capita income would grow by a factor of 38 through the impact of the environment on institutions.
In addition, pandemics can develop autocratic responses social institutions. Murray et.al (2013) show that differences in forms of political governance are due, in part, to ecological variations in the prevalence or not of epidemic crises, where political reactions are supported by individual authoritarianism created by social stress.
People get tougher in dealing with reality, they start to think that more radical measures should be taken. This perfectly matches the human instinct to follow leaders. People will accept any measure from the leader as long as he promises that he will solve the problem. They start to doubt less of what the government says and become more conformist. In this way, the political cost of expanding a government's power is reduced by an increase in the costs of monitoring citizens. Therefore, those areas of the planet most affected by diseases tend to be less democratic and more authoritarian.
Thus, there is, or should be, a certain concern in the present COVID-19 crisis regarding the growth of authoritarianism in the long run. Vigilance is required, but it is certain that some democracies are fragile and will succumb to the torment. It is also a fact that, as much as the risks of authoritarian rise increase, restrictive measures, such as lockdowns, are necessary to contain the disease. The big question is: how to balance democratic institutions with the instincts of human despair when dealing with those risks?
— CLARK, David. Germs, genes, & civilization: How epidemics shaped who we are today. FT Press, 2010;
— THORNHILL, Randy; FINCHER, Corey L. The Parasite-Stress Theory of Sociality: the behavioral immune system and human social and cognitive uniqueness. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, v. 8, n. 4, p. 257, 2014;
— SUEDFELD, Peter; SCHALLER, Mark. Authoritarianism and the Holocaust: Some cognitive and affective implications. What social psychology can tell us about the Holocaust: Understanding perpetrator behavior, p. 68–90, 2002;
— JEDWAB, Remi; JOHNSON, Noel D.; KOYAMA, Mark. Negative shocks and Mass Persecutions: evidence from the Black Death. Journal of Economic Growth, v. 24, n. 4, p. 345–395, 2019;
— Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J. H., & Duncan, L. A. Evolved Disease-Avoidance Mechanisms and Contemporary Xenophobic Attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7(4), 333–353;
— NAVARRETE, Carlos David; FESSLER, Daniel MT. Disease Avoidance and Ethnocentrism: the effects of disease vulnerability and disgust sensitivity on intergroup attitudes. Evolution and Human Behavior, v. 27, n. 4, p. 270–282, 2006;
— BLOOM, David E. et al. Geography, Demography, and Economic Growth in Africa. Brookings papers on economic activity, v. 1998, n. 2, p. 207–295, 1998;
— LETENDRE, Kenneth; FINCHER, Corey L.; THORNHILL, Randy. Parasite Stress, Collectivism, and Human Warfare. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, p. 351, 2012;
— ACEMOGLU, Daron; JOHNSON, Simon; ROBINSON, James A. The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: an empirical investigation. American Economic Review, v. 91, n. 5, p. 1369–1401, 2001;
— EASTERLY, William; LEVINE, Ross. Tropics, Germs, and Crops: how endowments influence economic development. Journal of Monetary Economics, v. 50, n. 1, p. 3–39, 2002;
— MURRAY, Damian R.; SCHALLER, Mark; SUEDFELD, Peter. Pathogens and Politics: further evidence that parasite prevalence predicts authoritarianism. PloS One, v. 8, n. 5, 2013.