Pandemic of fear and its consequences for society

Let's figure out how, thanks to the pandemic, fear turns out to be a necessary resource to explain what is happening, manage society and form new identities.

Pandemic of fear and its psychological consequences

The modern world has entered the "viral" stage of information development, when threats take on a pandemic impact. As the global experience of COVID-19 has shown, a "pandemic of fear" has gripped the population with its traumatic consequences for people. At the same time, fear of a pandemic has become no less a serious problem than the pandemic itself [3].

 

The growing chasm between everyday experience and an overabundance of conflicting information tears apart the stable picture of the world, which appears in the guise of an impersonal and hostile force that penetrates into everyday life. As a result, there is massive anxiety about the uncertainty of change, which is experienced as an invisible threat that generates mental disorders.

According to a psychological study conducted at the beginning of the pandemic in China (January-February 2020), 16.5% of respondents had moderate to severe depressive symptoms; 28.8% had moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, and 8.1% of those surveyed reported moderate or severe stress levels [15]. Similar studies in the United States (April-May 2020) showed that 41% of adult respondents had at least one sign of anxiety disorder. The revealed symptoms were observed three times more often than in previous years, and depressive - four times more often than in the previous year. In addition, the number of suicidal thoughts doubled [9].

 

With the advent of the pandemic, the phenomenon of “corona psychosis” has spread, the symptoms of which are manifested in situations of social isolation. While in quarantine restrictions, people exhibit anxious reactions, have an obsessive fear of contracting the virus, and experience severe stress associated with uncertainty and loss of control over their lives [14]. Moreover, a recent international study, conducted in 10 countries with different government policies, showed that the belief of the population in the ineffectiveness of government actions increases the perception of the level of risk, and hence fear [10].

At the same time, the origins of the massive fear that manifested itself against the backdrop of the pandemic have deeper roots than it seems at first glance. They are found not only in the psychological dimension, but also in the social, cultural and political realm. Accordingly, we can talk about communities of fear, culture of fear and politics of fear. But first, let's deal with the very concept of fear and its varieties.

The phenomenon of fear and its typology

The concept of fear seems self-evident, but it remains multifaceted, which makes it difficult to define. An emotional state caused by experiencing a real or imagined threatening situation can be considered a common sign of fear. The orientation of fear does not indicate the experience of the present, but the projection of negative experience into the future, which is assessed as an impending threat. Fear signals danger and acts as a trigger that mobilizes the body's resources to avoid a potential threat to life. The specificity of human fear is determined not only by genetic and physiological mechanisms, but also by the cultural and historical conditions of its manifestation [6].

Biological, social and existential fear. Biological fear belongs to the most ancient type of fear in the evolutionary sense, has an instinctive nature and neurophysiological manifestation, including somatic symptoms and biochemical response mechanisms. In an evolutionary sense, fear is a universal adaptive function for the survival of an organism in a changing environment. The object of biological fear is physical events in the external world that directly threaten (or are perceived as a threat) to the integrity of the organism.

 

 

 

 

Social fear appears in the process of communication, it is culturally conditioned and arises in specific historical forms. Being a derivative of the system of social relations, social fear reflects a person's perception and assessment of his position in society and characterizes the attitude of people towards each other.

This fear can be both constructive, maintaining social order (for example, the fear of rejection disciplines violators of the order), and destructive, arising in anticipation of a possible deterioration of vital interests and needs. An extreme case of this trend is massive social fear of catastrophic threats. Consequently, the object of social fear is the very system of social relations, which can pose a threat to people's status claims.

Finally, existential fear has as its source internal personality conflicts, experienced as a problem of choosing life goals and values ​​in an unpredictable world in a stream of constant changes. The situation of fear here is a state of fundamental uncertainty of human existence, when the semantic content and a stable perspective of one's life, for which each person bears responsibility, is threatened.

In relation to the physical experience of fear, existential fear is perceived rather as a vague anxiety, they have different contents. Physical  fear  is associated with the specific conditions of the organism's survival, existential fear - with the conditions of being. Existential fear indicates a crisis state of consciousness, revealing anxiety in front of nothingness and the end of existence.

This typology of fear describes a person who experiences threats to his bodily organization (biological aspect), the structure of his social relations (social aspect) and the uniqueness of his being (existential aspect). However, neither biological, nor social, nor existential types of fear explain the political behavior of people associated with relations of power.

 

Political fear. In the political field, fear has a different meaning than in the types of fear described above. There are specific forms of conflict here, in the context of which social practices are built around the struggle for domination between different group interests. The struggle for dominance takes the form of either supporting the existing order, or demanding its change, aimed at transforming the structure of power between the rulers and the ruled.

The ruling elite justifies its power by the legitimacy of the political system, which is actively or passively supported by the majority. Alternative projects of power are based on the loss of confidence in the current regime, and the trigger for the desired changes is unmet needs as a result of social contradictions (economic inequality, violation of rights, etc.).

Separating fear from its political origins and its use for political ends obscures the fact that fear is used as an ideological way of dominating and suppressing alternative images of reality. By identifying threats and provoking the fears they arouse, the authorities appeal to the sense of unity that hides social conflicts. Taking fear as an opportunity for national (economic, cultural, etc.) renewal, a frightened society reproduces forms of fear that limit the aspirations and actions of people [4].

Fear communities.  Historical and sociological studies have long recognized the importance of emotions, their impact on the behavior of people of different eras and cultures. Emotions are pervasive and important social forces that help shape individual and collective ways of being, knowing and acting in the political sphere [5]. “Affective communities” are formed when shared forms of feelings about widely shared phenomena (such as terrorism, global warming, or labor migration) are widespread.

This means that the relevant community is brought together through shared patterns of emotional meaning and understanding. In this sense, it can be said that emotions “circulate” within the respective community and bring it together. Thus, emotions are part of social life through which communities exist and continue to transform. Emotions are at the core of how communities arise and can be motivated [13].

Affective communities are formed by shared trauma. The emotions associated with the suffering caused by war, terrorism, natural disasters, hunger and poverty can play a key role in shaping communities and guiding their policies. Traumatic events are critical because they generate socially ingrained emotional meanings, which in turn allow direct victims and remote bystanders to share the trauma, as well as the loss associated with it, in a way that reaffirms their collective identity.

Collective emotions, driven by shared trauma, evaluate, guide, and justify people's behavior in society. Driven by shared feelings, collectives create communities based on the imaginary experience of negative experiences [7]. Therefore, emotions in history are not psychological states, but cultural artifacts.

What has been said about emotions also applies to the phenomenon of fear during a pandemic. Fear community also builds on the unifying power of emotion, identifying itself as a common threat. Fear structures people into different groups, rallying “friends” and marginalizing “others”. Fear of the virus turns into fear of "outsiders" who are rejected and cause negative reactions, such as opposing supporters and opponents of vaccination.

Social fears arise when the dynamics of everyday life ceases to be comprehensible, and the future becomes dangerously unpredictable. Fears compensate for the lack of explanation by simplifying complex and contradictory processes to stereotyped assessment schemes [1]. These forms of fear include various ways of responding - from mass phobias to conspiracy theories [8] that distort the perception of danger.

They express collective concern and are the language of protest against frightening reality, while ignoring the official point of view on the interpretation of events. In the context of global digital communications, social fears generate waves of fake information, spreading the infodemia of rumors and memes. Infodemia mixes facts and fakes (as their hybrid - fakes), official expert information and network neo-mythology. At the same time, the emerging waves of social fear have their own cyclical nature: from alarming rumors to media viruses, from panic reactions to mass protests.

Unlike social fear, political fear does not simply indicate concern about a threat to group interests. With the help of fear, a social and symbolic order is reproduced. This enhances the ability of the authorities to manage and suppress opposition to management, i.e. use violence.

On the other hand, fear forms protest practices as an expression of distrust of the authorities' ability to adequately exercise their powers and also expresses fears about possible violence. In other words, from the side of the state, we see the emergence of such a regime as the politics of fear, and from the side of the community, which is becoming an increasingly less stable object of management, a culture of fear. Consequently, the object of political fear is the threat of using violence, not episodic (criminal or terrorist), but systematic violence that emerges from an impersonal power structure alienated from society.

The politics of fear.  The politics of fear expresses a new model of social governance, creating a framework for the collective imagination, supported by the level of emotion. The new regime of government determines the nature of political action, legitimized by the constant appeal to images of threats and dangers. Fear in politics leads to political decisions of a restrictive or prohibitive nature, focused on security as its main goal.

 

Fear is transformed from an instrument into the essence of politics. The identification of politics and fear occurs as a result of three processes. 1) Fear becomes the leading motive for changes in the existing order. 2) Fear is the basis of the new legitimation of power. 3) Fear is embodied in the form of a universal super-ideology. The reasons for this, researchers say, are distrust of the market and the state, the delimitation of power and politics, the growing influence of socio-economic inequality, which creates a widespread fear [9].

Fear culture. The concept of the culture of fear was developed by F. Furedi and B. Glassner [11; 12]. Furedi wrote that on the threshold of the XXI century. the cultural imagination of Western society is stimulated and shaped not by hope but by fear. A characteristic feature of the culture of fear is the unsettling expectation that people are under constant attack from destructive forces that threaten their daily existence.

In his opinion, this is due to the fact that mass fear prevails over the personal experience of people who succumb to the pressure of fear under the influence of factors such as the disintegration of social ties that level the importance of their own activity and the ability to control their lives.

One of the main driving forces behind the culture of fear is the weakening of the moral authority of social structures. Fear seems to provide temporary compensation for moral insecurity, and for this reason it is supported by a variety of interests. At the same time, fear continues to be used as a rational management strategy: the ruling elite and the media broadcast images of fear to mobilize the population, and society resists official influence, turning to various protective practices - from traditional values ​​to conspiracy theories.

Lessons from the pandemic

The global threat of a pandemic focuses on itself not only mass fear and anxiety, but also reveals the peculiarities of the structure of society, power and culture. Fear turns out to be a universal language for government, the expression of public protest and the creation of new forms of identity.

 

Fear has the property of increasing itself. Strengthening security measures entails a renewed increase in public fear, which appeals to even greater security measures, triggering new cycles of fear and security, as the state has to legitimize its actions, citing the danger that gives rise to fear. Fighting fear creates even greater fear through the notion that everyone is in danger. So the fight against the causes of fear only increases fear in society, and protection from danger is assessed by the degree of fear caused.

 

A pandemic not only generates fear, but also creates conditions when fear becomes necessary to explain what is happening, govern society and express one's position. So fear from a defensive reaction becomes a technology of command and control, replacing intelligible ideology and public discussion. As the pandemic threat is eliminated and its relevance decreases, the level of anxiety will fall. However, we are still participants in a deeper fear if we allow the creation of barriers to violence within society and manipulation by political forces.

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