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Coronavirus: How anxiety changes political behavior – Vox.com

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Why do some Americans react differently to the threat of terrorism than to the threat of the coronavirus?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, particularly in the wake of small protests emerging in opposition to state stay-at-home orders. And particularly as demands from some conservatives to “reopen the economy” continue despite the pandemic continuing to kill thousands of Americans.

On Twitter, MSNBC host Chris Hayes shared many of the same thoughts, noting that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “We completely transformed nearly every facet of American public life and governance” in response. Many of the same voices who urged that transformation seem to be reacting to the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed tens of thousands more than the 9/11 attacks — far differently.

To be sure, while the reaction to 9/11 was transformative for millions of Americans, it didn’t have the same economic repercussions as the coronavirus pandemic, but the differing attitudes to terrorism and pandemics were obvious well before the stay-at-home orders were issued.

Researchers on how anxiety impacts our politics argue that our different responses to terrorism and disease are the result of the politicization of anxiety, an emotional reaction to a perceived threat.

Bethany Albertson of the University of Texas and Shana Gadarian of Syracuse University are the authors of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. In their work, they’ve found that what individuals want most when facing anxiety is certainty and protection. “When we’re anxious, we need to put our trust in someone to protect us,” Albertson told me. In more typical disasters, the government becomes a beacon of security for many Americans, leading to the “rally round the flag” effect in which support for presidents and trust in the government rises during times of crisis.

In their book, they looked at four different policy areas — public health, terrorism, climate change, and immigration — and divided them between “framed threats” and “unframed threats.” In short, a “framed threat” is a partisan one, where the “threat” level depends on your political perspective (some people are very anxious about climate change; others are very anxious about immigration levels).

Protesters against state government measures rally in San Diego, California, on April 26.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

An “unframed” threat, like terrorism or a public health catastrophe, is one where the threat is immediate and obvious to everyone. As Gadarian told the Niskanen Center in an interview, unframed threats are “ones where we don’t actually need politicians to necessarily tell you that you should be scared. Democrats and Republicans alike are scared about terrorism after 9/11.” Unframed threats, then, are supposed to be nonpartisan.

But the coronavirus, coupled with the federal government’s poor response and an existing lack of trust in institutions (including the media), has scrambled that response. Albertson told me that in the midst of the pandemic, “who [is] feeling anxious about this threat and who people are trusting have strong partisan predictors,” which broke with their previous research showing that response to a pandemic-level threat would be largely nonpartisan.

But Americans still want to hear from medical authorities over politicians. Gadarian told me, “They don’t want to hear as much from the political leaders, particularly when they think that their performance to date has been pretty bad.”

In this interview, Albertson and Gadarian discussed how partisanship and the actions of political elites are impacting anxiety and what reporters (like me!) and the media can do to help. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jane Coaston

How do you define anxiety? You do not necessarily mean the anxiety that I feel about going to the grocery store during a pandemic. How do you think about anxiety in a political context?

Shana Gadarian

Well, I think actually the anxiety about getting sick is part of the politicization of anxiety. So, when we talk about anxiety, we’re talking about a kind of emotional reaction to a threat that people see in the environment — the recognition of a threat, and the uncertainty that goes around with how to protect oneself.

So in a pandemic, the kinds of things that people become anxious about may really be about becoming sick. The [anxiety] may be about dying, so that can be a source of anxiety in terrorism, as well. I think the concerns that people have, some of them are wrapped up in these concerns about physical harm. …

Now, in different parts of the book, we look at four different policy areas. We look at immigration, we look at terrorism, we look at climate change, and we look at public health outbreaks. The anxiety, the source of that anxiety, is different across those areas. But what we argue is that what people are looking for is a way to cope with that anxiety. And they want policies, and they want leaders who can protect them.

Jane Coaston

How would you say the anxiety from terrorism differs from the anxiety caused by a public health threat?

Bethany Albertson

I think one of the variables to think about is whether the threat is coming internally or externally. In general, when we’re anxious, we need to put our trust in someone to protect us. And so you can say in general that anxious Americans put their trust in the government. When we’re anxious about the economy, though, and we think the government is at fault, anxiety makes trust in governments go down.

And so you can think about this as, when we’re anxious, like directly after 9/11, trust in the government goes up, and that’s rally around the flag. That’s “we need to believe in our government to keep us safe and feel protected.” And that gives way over time. It doesn’t last. And it takes on partisan dimensions over time.

But a public health threat, to the extent it’s external, should also prompt an increase of trust. And it shouldn’t hurt trust in government because it is supposed to be this external thing that hits us exogenous to the United States. …

It’s more complicated than that, though, because we’re getting daily updates on ways in which the government hasn’t been protecting us. And so I think that this external/internal attribution breaks down in our current context.

Jane Coaston

Do you think that’s why some people have turned to conspiracy theories? When you are constantly getting news about how the government has failed, or even how medical professionals aren’t as knowledgeable, and someone claims, “I have this means to prove that this is all a hoax,” or, “I’m the person with the cure,” [maybe] people are just looking for something to trust.

Shana Gadarian

Yeah, I think that that’s part of it. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Joanne Miller at the University of Delaware about her conspiracy theories work. She’s got some really interesting stuff, and she’s out in the field this week with some Covid-19 conspiracy theories. She and her coauthors argue that conspiracy theories are for people who have experienced political losses. And they’re talking particularly about political conspiracy theories.

Jane Coaston

Right.

Shana Gadarian

But I think this sense of loss and [the idea] that if the world were fair then my team would be in charge, that kind of psychology leads you to endorse theories that on their face have very little backing. And I think that sense of, “Yeah, the government has failed. No, the experts don’t know what they’re talking about” — that work has been done by political elites for a long time to try and denigrate experts. The current president is particularly good at it, but that is a long-term project, particularly of elites on the right, to denigrate expertise in government and in other professions.

Jane Coaston

So you wrote this book not knowing that a global pandemic would arise. What has surprised you about specifically the American response to the pandemic, based on the research that you’ve done?

Shana Gadarian

I have some other work looking at fear of terrorism and attitudes about Muslims and attitudes about immigrants. And so, that kind of other-ing that happens in terrorism, it’s happening now in Covid-19, which is very disconcerting in a lot of ways.

I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s surprising, but to me, it’s the way in which particularly the president and some right-wing leaders have talked about Covid-19 as a “Wuhan virus,” as a “Chinese virus.” That work that they’re doing to other it is a way of casting blame on China, and casting blame away from the government and particularly the president. And that has really bad implications for blame attribution, and then also [for] things like racist violence against groups of Asian Americans. And these protests about the stay-at-home orders are not just protests about economic anxiety, although there is part of that.

I mean, it’s not surprising. We’ve seen this before. But this glomming on of anxiety about the virus and othering that’s going on about who to blame, and it’s anyone but the government, I think that is, again, it’s not surprising. It is a little depressing, though.

Bethany Albertson

In our book, we look at two public health crises. We look at responses to [the H1N1 outbreak] and then we look at responses to a fictional smallpox outbreak. And in both studies, we both theorized a public health threat as nonpartisan. And, empirically, we found that responses to a public health threat were nonpartisan.

Where this is different, not too many years later, in the current context we’re in now, is who’s feeling anxious about this threat and who people are trusting have strong partisan predictors. And so we thought of a public health threat as our nonpartisan issue area and climate change and immigration as our partisan issue areas where people feel anxious. And partisanship shapes who feels anxious. But now we see, people on the left are feeling more anxious [about the coronavirus]. Partisanship is shaping who’s being trusted.

At the same time, we do see some evidence that some of our theories around public health crises in the book still holds. People are putting their trust in medical experts. So it’s not everything has changed. People still do want medical expertise in the face of a public health crisis.

Jane Coaston

What is the best way [for scientists and others] to respond to the completely understandable anxiety of people who are looking for information to trust, while also continuing to learn more? You’re going to have scientists who say something one week and then three weeks later look back and think, “That was incorrect,” which is part of the scientific process.

But how do you think that they could do a better job of getting that across to people who are not as versed in how the scientific method works?

Shana Gadarian

Part of the really big challenge here is, I think generally, as political scientists, we’re a little bit sad about how little attention people are paying to politics on a normal basis. And that’s not the case [now]. Local news consumption is up. People are paying more attention to the media. They’re picking up the phone for polls, also, at higher rates, which seems good for democracy. But the messages that they’re getting are very quick-moving. And that is hard for people to adjust to. The World Health Organization says we shouldn’t wear masks, and now we should wear masks. And I do think that’s hard for people to keep up with.

We’ve recommended that the medical experts be up front and center, and the political leaders take a step back and defer to the doctors and to the head of the health agencies, because that’s who anxious people want to hear from. They don’t want to hear as much from the political leaders, particularly when they think that the performance to date has been pretty bad, which we see in the polling.

Jane Coaston

I’ve been thinking about how partisanship has impacted, in some ways, if not what the [government] response to the coronavirus looked like, the interpretation of coronavirus in the media. If you could wave a magic wand and change how I do this work, how do you think that media could better report on both the pandemic and the partisan response to it? While also getting across that, for most Americans, they’re obeying stay-at-home orders. They’re more concerned about stay-at-home orders being lifted too early rather than too late. How do you think we could do a better job of getting that across?

Shana Gadarian

There is this big partisan gap [that impacts] who is worried about coronavirus and [their behaviors. But while there’s still a gap, there is still more agreement than there is disagreement across the parties, in the mass public. I think reflecting that is good so that people don’t feel alone. I think part of the challenge of this time period is [that there is] so much uncertainty, and that people are looking for any kind of solution. And like you said, sometimes they’ll go to solutions that aren’t even logical, like conspiracy theories. But if we, if the media and political leaders, can provide a set of solutions for people that have some evidence, and to also call out when there’s no evidence, and very explicitly, that would be really helpful for people to know, one, they’re not alone. They’re frustrated and they want to go back to work, but they can’t yet, and it’s for everyone’s safety.

Oh, I have one more suggestion. I’ve been thinking about how the epidemiological modeling is hard for people to understand. Not because they’re numbers, but because I think counterfactuals are really hard for people. What would have happened in a different world had we not stayed home? I think that’s a hard thing to understand.

I’ve thought about whether or not we can start thinking about the people who we’ve saved by staying home. To move us in the realm of gains, rather than the realm of losses, showing those people, “This person is now alive because you stayed at home.” And I think personalizing that may help people understand the value of staying home and not going back to work. That’s something I’ve been kicking around lately.


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OPINION | Alberta premier targets Ottawa in pivot to pre-pandemic politics – CBC.ca

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This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.


Pandemic? What pandemic?

Watching Alberta politics these days is like riding a time machine into the past when COVID-19 didn’t exist or into a future where it’s been conquered. Or perhaps we woke up in a parallel universe.

Because Alberta politics is beginning to act as if the pandemic suddenly disappeared.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney called the COVID-19 virus the flu, as in, “an influenza of this nature,” even though it’s a coronavirus that’s more contagious and more deadly than the flu and has no vaccine. He also announced — without first informing Alberta’s chief medical officer — that he would let the province’s public health emergency lapse June 15.

This week, he announced he’d like to fast-track phase 2 of the business reopening (that includes movie theatres and libraries).

But, most tellingly of all, he resumed his heated attacks against the federal Liberal government.

If nothing else, this signals a return to normality for Kenney who is no longer pleading for more pandemic financial relief from Ottawa.

Kenney once again on offensive

After 10 weeks of biting his tongue and smiling through gritted teeth whenever he talked kindly about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals, Kenney is once more on the offensive.

And there was no better target for him than the recent federal ban on 1,500 “assault-style” firearms.

On Wednesday, Kenney held a news conference with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer where they wrapped themselves in the Alberta flag while taking shots not only at the federal government but at Central Canadians.

“While some people in faraway places like Toronto may not understand the reality, hundreds of thousands of Albertans simply use firearms as a part of everyday life,” said Kenney, who explained he was “defending law-abiding Albertans against a federal attack against their rights as law-abiding firearms owners.”

Not to be outdone in the outrage department, Schweitzer promised to stand up for “an Alberta-made justice system.”

“(Albertans) don’t want policy developed in downtown Toronto, they want policy developed right here in Alberta,” said Schweitzer, who added: “We’re going to have more Alberta and less Ottawa in our justice system.”

Picking fights with Ottawa

We haven’t heard the “more Alberta, less Ottawa” trope much the past 10 weeks as the Kenney government took what might be called a “less Alberta, more Ottawa” approach to emergency financial help.

But now the Alberta government is pivoting with all the subtlety of a dog running on linoleum suddenly trying to change direction. 

It’s clumsy but for Kenney it means he’s getting back on track. He’s picking fights with Ottawa, taking potshots at “faraway places like Toronto,” focusing on his rural base of support, and once again pushing an Alberta-first agenda that could include setting up an Alberta provincial police force and Alberta pension plan.

“Stay tuned for the Fair Deal panel (report),” Kenney said this week when asked if he’s in favour of cutting ties with the RCMP. Kenney has said the Fair Deal report will be coming out when the pandemic is over. You have to wonder if in Kenney’s mind this means “tomorrow.”

Kenney also said he is “seriously considering” launching a legal challenge against the federal government’s gun ban.

Never mind that firearms fall under federal jurisdiction.

Time machine to Klein days

Here’s where the time machine seems to have taken us back to the days of former premier Ralph Klein. Klein made something of a career launching lawsuits, or threatening legal action, against the federal government on a host of issues including the GST, social transfer payments and, coincidentally, the gun registry.

Klein’s legal fights were the political equivalent of tilting at windmills but he knew that for a populist politician winning was not crucial; it’s the donning of the armour and the spurring of the steed.

This is political theatre and Kenney is such a master at it he should have his own show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival (if only the festival hadn’t been cancelled because of the pandemic).

Kenney would also like to put the pandemic behind him because it hasn’t given him a popularity boost, unlike just about every other political leader in the country.

An Angus Reid poll about premiers released last week ranked Kenney as second last, with a 48-per-cent approval rating, whereas Ontario’s controversial Doug Ford, for example, enjoyed 69 per cent approval.

This week, a poll by Research Co. indicated that 56 per cent of Albertans said their province would be better off with a different premier in charge, the highest level of disapproval in the country.

Consequently, Kenney has dusted off his Captain Alberta cape that had sat forgotten the past 10 weeks, perhaps under a mound of applications for federal aid. He is proudly wearing it into battle once more against the Trudeau Liberals.

The pandemic might not be over medically, but in Kenney’s mind it seems to be over politically.

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Trudeau takes a knee at anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill – CBC.ca

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appearance at an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill today, showing up unannounced to hear speeches from activists demanding fairer treatment from police for minorities.

Trudeau joined the large crowd in kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds — which is how long a Minneapolis police officer held down George Floyd with his knee on his neck before he died. The African-American man died while in police custody on May 25; all four officers at the scene now face charges.

Protesters in other cities have asked police officers to kneel to show respect for black people who have been killed in police custody. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders also took a knee during a protest in that city today.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick launched the kneeling gesture some years ago by dropping to one knee during the national anthem to protest violent police treatment of African-Americans. His critics accused him of showing disrespect for the anthem and the American flag.

Trudeau tried to blend into the crowd Friday — but TV cameras and the RCMP security detail made his presence known to the roughly 4,000 activists gathered around the Centennial Flame on the lawn at Parliament Hill. Trudeau told his security detail to stop pushing people as he made his way closer to the stage where the speakers were addressing the crowd.

Trudeau initially was met with chants of “Stand up to Trump!” and “Go away!” from some in the crowd. The yelling died down as local black leaders started speaking about their calls for an end to racial injustice at home and abroad.

WATCH | Justin Trudeau takes a knee during anti-black racism protest

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appearance at an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Friday. He was met with chants of “Stand up to Trump!” from the crowd and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd. 1:47

The Trump chant was a reference to the prime minister’s reluctance to condemn U.S. President Donald Trump by name over his handling of the protests.

Trudeau was asked this week to respond to the president’s threat to deploy active duty military personnel on protesters in U.S. cities — a question that Trudeau answered after a 21-second pause.

The prime minister clapped Friday as the assembled speakers chanted “black lives matter” and called on those in power to do more to address systemic racism.

Someone in the crowd handed the prime minister a T-shirt with that slogan emblazoned on the front.

Trudeau was accompanied by Families Minister Ahmed Hussen, a Somali-Canadian who has spoken out about the racism he has faced in Canada.

“I think it’s powerful when you have the head of government taking a knee and clapping when people say ‘black lives matter,'” Hussen said. “It’s incredibly powerful for him to come and be part of this.”

The crowd on hand for the Parliament Hill protest was a multi-racial cross-section of the city, something Hussen said gives him “a lot of hope in the future.”

WATCH | Ahmed Hussen says the PM’s action were ‘pretty powerful’

Families Minister Ahmed Hussen spoke with reporters after attending the anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau June 5. 1:29

After the speeches, the protesters moved down Wellington St., which runs right in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in downtown Ottawa.

NDP Jagmeet Singh also took part in similar anti-black racism protests in Toronto. He marched with the activists to that city’s Nathan Phillips Square.

“We need to be heard. People need to be heard,” Singh said in a video post on his Instagram page. “People want justice, they want systemic change and an end to racial profiling.”

Watch: The Power Panel discusses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attendance at a protest against anti-black racism and his government’s record on that issue:

The Power Panel discusses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attendance at a protest against anti-black racism and his government’s record on that issue. 8:57

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The politics behind how governments control coronavirus data – SaltWire Network

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Anton Oleinik, Memorial University of Newfoundland

COVID-19 has affected almost every country around the globe. The World Health Organization has confirmed cases in 216 countries and territories, a total that represents more than 85 per cent of 251 entities recognized by the United Nations. Yet each government has responded differently to the coronavirus pandemic — including how data on the disease have been shared with each country’s citizens.

The selectiveness with which governments release information about the number of confirmed cases and the deaths caused by the coronavirus suggest techniques of “bio-power” may be at play.

French philosopher Michel Foucault invented the concept of bio-power in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-78. He defined bio-power as a “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power.”

Foucault found an early example of bio-power in the smallpox vaccine developed by the end of the 18th century — one of the first attempts to manage populations in terms of the calculus of probabilities under the banner of public health. While a COVID-19 vaccine is still in the making, the concept of bio-power may help make better sense of how we see governments deal with the ongoing pandemic.

Our perception of the probability of contracting the virus and the chances to recover is shaped by the relevant statistical figures released by our respective governments. Those figures feed the entire spectrum of our own reactions to COVID-19 — including fear and negligence.

A balanced take on COVID-19 and a proper course of action to deal with the pandemic means the information provided by governments must be complete, valid and reliable. Unfortunately, that is not happening in many cases.

When examining how some countries have responded to the pandemic, bio-political factors should be taken into account. This includes how governments are collecting and sharing data about the coronavirus. Let’s look at three countries in particular.

The United States

In the U.S., COVID-19 information is disseminated by government agencies, universities, the media and even search engines. Various levels of governments remain the ultimate source of the reported figures, but how accurate are those figures?

The U.S. now has the most confirmed cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. While this can be explained by a late response to the pandemic and the lack of universal health care coverage, the political stakes in the COVID-19 crisis are also very high for the U.S.

The social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic will be a major factor in this year’s elections. In an effort to shift attention from his administration’s response, U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated China should be blamed for the crisis. The high number of infections and deaths contribute to a feeling of fear and insecurity — which from a bio-power perspective may actually help Trump sell his message.

Russia

In addition to being the only source of information about COVID-19, the Russian government also makes every effort to protect its monopoly on the production and dissemination of the relevant data. Anyone who attempts to collect and disseminate COVID-19 figures without having a “licence to inform” may face criminal charges for being an agent provocateur.

A group of medical doctors in Chechnya, the previously rebel region in the Caucasus now under the tight control of the central government, attempted to complain about the lack of preparedness to COVID-19. They were promptly accused of “provocations” and forced to deliver public apologies.

According to government data, Russia has one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world, less than one per cent. (The U.S. reports a six per cent mortality rare; Italy, France and the U.K. are in the range of 14-15 per cent). Either the Russians have an exceptionally strong immune system or something is wrong with the way the government counts the deaths.

As well, the regular monthly statistics of deaths released by some regions shows an anomalous hike in April — numbers that are out of line with the officially approved figures of COVID-19-related deaths.

The gap between the number of officially acknowledged COVID-19 cases and deaths may have political explanations.

Similar to the U.S., the pandemic interferes with the political agenda in Russia. The constitutional referendum engineered to extend Vladimir Putin’s term as Russia’s president was originally scheduled on April 22, but was eventually postponed until July 1.

Putin is trying to make the gambit of accepting high (but not necessarily accurate) figures of COVID-19 infections and simultaneously doing everything possible to under-report the true number of COVID-19-related deaths. If successful, he would be able to claim credit for handling the crisis better than other world leaders.

Canada

Canada’s figures do not look controversial at first sight. The country has neither an exceptionally high number of COVID-19 cases nor an exceptionally high mortality rate (7.5 per cent). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t potentially some elements of bio-power at play.

Canada’s government chose to complicate the task of comparing the COVID-19 figures across its provinces and territories. The federal government’s website dedicated to COVID-19 reports the aggregate data only. No death statistics are included. Comparing the responses of each province requires an examination of 13 different provincial websites, which have various formats of reporting the relevant figures.

Access-to-information requests are not of great help here either, despite the fact that there are access-to-information acts both at the federal and provincial levels. It takes an average of one month to get a response to an access-to-information request under normal times. But now governments have full discretion in deciding what information on COVID-19 to release, as well as when and how to do it.

This means that in Canada, bio-politics manifests itself through the fuzziness of information and, in the absence of clear information, the public is expected to uncritically accept the actions of their governments.

The Conversation

Anton Oleinik, Professor of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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