Epidemics can give rise to conspiracy theories, civil unrest, racial discrimination: Study

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on September 07, 2020

Epidemics are often followed by social issues such as civil unrest and racial discrimination with a rise in conspiracy theories, according to a historical study of past epidemic episodes.

Researchers from Italy analysed 57 epidemic episodes between the Black Death (1346-1353) and the Spanish Flu (1919-1920) along with their outcome to better understand the outcome of an epidemic.

"The social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period, but, at the same time it constitutes the fertile ground on which global protest may return more aggressively once the epidemic is over," said Massimo Morelli, Professor of Political Science at Bocconi, in a paper recently published in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.

Epidemics can often lead to theories related to government conspiracies. They also tend to influence people to single out certain strata of society and increase conflict.

"Overall, the historical evidence shows that the epidemics display a potential disarranging effect on civil society along three dimensions," the authors said in their study. "First, the policy measures tend to conflict with the interest of people, generating a dangerous friction between society and institutions. Second, to the extent that an epidemic impacts differently on society in terms of mortality and economic welfare, it may exacerbate inequality. Third, the psychological shock can induce irrational narratives on the causes and the spread of the disease, which may result in social or racial discrimination and even xenophobia."

The researchers focussed on five cholera epidemics. Within these episodes, there were 39 rebellions in the 10 years preceding an epidemic and 71 rebellions in the 10 years following it, as per the study.

Published on September 07, 2020

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