The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is an occurrence without precedent in our lifetimes, and consequently there may be a tendency to think that previous experiences offer little in the way of guidance during these extraordinarily difficult times. However, this is not the case. Lessons from decades of social science research on various aspects of disasters of all types, including public health emergencies, are applicable to the current health, social, and economic crisis.“Envisioning disasters as a proxy for such attacks, military and other government agencies began funding quick-response and longer-term studies, with an eye toward gleaning insights that could be employed in war planning.”
US disaster research has roots in preparedness for war involving nuclear exchanges and the potential use of chemical and biological weapons. After World War II, the federal government, and in particular military institutions, were concerned about how affected populations would react in the event of an attack using weapons of mass destruction. Would there be panic on a mass scale? Would crimes such as looting increase? Would there be short- or longer-term impacts on the mental health of residents of devastated communities? Would deaths, injuries, damage, and losses have long-term negative effects? Envisioning disasters as a proxy for such attacks, military and other government agencies began funding quick-response and longer-term studies, with an eye toward gleaning insights that could be employed in war planning.
Social scientific research on disasters has expanded and evolved beyond the wartime focus of those early days, influenced not only by studies of major disasters and other types of emergencies, but also by theoretical developments and empirical findings in disciplines such as sociology, geography, economics, decision science, psychology, and public health. The field of disaster studies is now global, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary.
Much of the knowledge base of social science disaster research is relevant to the current coronavirus crisis, but here I focus on three key topics: warnings, risk communication, and safety advisories; prosocial behavior and social solidarity; and how the social order itself structures both victimization and recovery trajectories.
Warnings, risk communication, and safety advisories
In a nation beset with many different types of disasters, it is understandable that social scientists have long focused on disaster warnings and risk communication more generally. The large literature on warnings deals with how to best inform those at risk—whether from a hurricane, tornado, flood, hazardous materials release, terrorist attack, or disease outbreak—so that they can take recommended protective action, whether that involves evacuating, sheltering in place, or undertaking some other safety measure. Major lessons from that literature are that those at risk must (1) receive the warning information; (2) comprehend the warning information; (3) understand that the warning applies to them personally; (4) believe that they are in fact in danger; (5) understand what they need to do to protect themselves and when they should take those actions; (6) have the capacity to actually carry out the recommended actions; and finally, (7) understand when the danger has passed. Warnings must be designed and communicated in ways that help at-risk groups successfully manage each of those steps—sometimes very quickly. Another challenge is the need for updating: disasters are dynamic, and warnings must shift and change as situations unfold.1For an overview of research on disaster warnings and challenges, see National Academy of Sciences, Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2018).
Focusing on the current pandemic, it is clear that moving through this warning–protective action sequence poses difficulties for many who are at risk. Subgroups within the population—e.g., the socially isolated, those who rely on dubious information sources, or those who lack the necessary literacy skills—may not be receiving or understanding detailed information on the threat posed by the virus. Personality matters, too. Some individuals are risk tolerant, while others are risk averse and more likely to personalize safety advisories and take them seriously. Segments of the public may remain in the dark about exactly what measures to take to remain safe—for example, when and where masks are needed, or what protections masks provide.“Challenges become even more daunting when we think about who is actually able to carry out recommended safety measures.”
Challenges become even more daunting when we think about who is actually able to carry out recommended safety measures. Within the disaster domain, research shows that resources and the ability to be flexible and adaptable matter greatly when it comes to heeding advisories and warnings, and also that those capacities are unequally distributed in the population.2→Deborah S. K. Thomas et al. eds., Social Vulnerability to Disasters, 2nd ed. (Boca Raton, Fl: CRC Press, 2013).
→Kathleen Tierney, Disasters: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2019).
→Bob Bolin and Liza C. Kurtz, “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability,” in Handbook of Disaster Research, 2nd ed., eds. Havidan Rodriguez, William Donner, and Joseph E, Trainor (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018), 181-203. As is heartbreakingly obvious in the current pandemic, many “essential” workers may have no choice but to put themselves, their families, and their other contacts at risk because they need their wages. Many of these same workers rely on public transportation. People forced to live in crowded dwellings out of economic necessity cannot practice social distancing like well-off people can. With demands for “opening our economy” coming from different quarters, and with so much conflicting information about when pandemic risk will decline, it is understandable that many are confused about when the danger will pass.
Disaster researchers have long argued that in crises, information sources must be seen as authoritative, credible, objective, trustworthy, and concerned first and foremost with the well-being of the public, as opposed to seeking to provide guidance that advances their own private interests. While striving to send consistent messages, those who disseminate warning information must also acknowledge at the start that guidance can and probably will change as knowledge evolves. With respect to public health emergencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also emphasizes the importance of empathy and compassion in public communications and of the need to clearly lay out both what is known and not known about a particular threat. Entities like CDC and the National Weather Service rightly pride themselves on their reputations for credibility and for putting research on crisis communication into practice.
Social disorganization versus social solidarity“Panic is extremely rare, because people do not become atomized individuals and social bonds do not break down in disasters.”
As early as the 1950s, researchers contradicted concerns about widespread social breakdown in the face of disaster. Take panic, for example. From a research perspective, panic involves highly individualistic behavior under conditions of extreme threat, in which social bonds break down and panicky individuals undertake actions aimed only at saving themselves, without regard to the safety or well-being of others. Defined this way, panic is extremely rare, because people do not become atomized individuals and social bonds do not break down in disasters.3Lee B. Clarke, “Panic: Myth or Reality?” Contexts 1, no. 3 (2002): 21–26. This does not mean that people do not experience fear in disaster situations, but rather that they maintain their connections with others and are capable of reasoned, cooperative action despite their fear. For example, orderly evacuation, not panic, was seen in the World Trade Center towers at the time of the September 11 attacks. We have many other examples of truly frightening airline disasters in which passengers evacuate rapidly and safely. In the case of pandemics, studies show that when authorities provide appropriate guidance and leadership, members of the public can be counted on to follow that advice.4Judith Walzer Leavitt, “Public Resistance or Cooperation?: A Tale of Smallpox in Two Cities,” Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science 1, no.3 (2003): 185–192.
Rather than descending into panic, people are often reluctant to act even when encountering real danger. One of the reasons why effective risk communication and warning design and dissemination are so important is because they must overcome the “normalcy bias” that governs people’s everyday lives. Those in danger may not heed evacuation orders or may do so too late. Because social ties are so strong, they may put the safety of others—an elderly parent, a disabled friend or neighbor—above their own. For many years, Japanese culture and preparedness guidance have stressed the need for community residents to save themselves over rescuing others when tsunamis threaten, because there is often so little time in which to escape. By and large, that guidance, known as tendenko, has had only a limited effect, as seen in the large death toll that resulted from the 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.5Katsuya Yamori, “Revisiting the Concept of Tsunami Tendenko: Tsunami Evacuation Behavior in the Great East Japan Earthquake,” in Studies on the 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake, ed. Hiroshi Kawase (Tokyo: Springer Japan, 2014), 49–64; James D. Goltz, “Tsunami Tendenko: A Sociological Critique,” Natural Hazards Review 18, no. 4 (2017): 0401701-1-0401701-6.
Students of disaster agree that the myth of the panicky public can lead to problematic beliefs and behaviors. The general public—and to a great extent, the media—use the term so loosely as to render it meaningless. Panic is equated with feelings of fear, with flight (even when fleeing is what is required), and with “freezing,” or failing to flee. When people are confused and increase their efforts to find information in crises, they are described as panicking. In the current pandemic, the public was advised to stock up on goods and prepare to shelter in place until further notice. When many took that advice and supplies of items such as toilet paper quite understandably could not meet the demand, the public was described as panicking. Perhaps most damaging are situations in which authorities seek to withhold information or fail to take appropriate actions out of fear that the public will panic. Findings from research and practice are clear: in disasters, pandemics, and other crises, the public can handle bad news and can be trusted to respond appropriately, provided that communication strategies are evidence-based.6For a good overview, see Deborah C. Glick, “Risk Communication for Public Health Emergencies,” Annual Review of Public Health 28 (2007): 33–54.
Researchers have repeatedly documented that, rather than panic, looting, criminal behavior, or mass demoralization, behavior in disasters is overwhelmingly prosocial. Most of the life-saving that takes place in disasters, both in the United States and around the world, is carried out not by official responders but by community residents themselves. Volunteering and donations increase dramatically in crisis situations. New groups form spontaneously to meet the needs of disaster victims, and existing groups that previously had no disaster-related responsibilities shift their focus. Civil society groups and institutions mobilize rapidly at the local, regional, and national level. Because even the best disaster plans invariably fail to anticipate all of the needs to which disasters give rise, official agencies improvise, and those that are unable to do so end up being less effective.“We are witnessing this flowering of social solidarity and creativity on a heretofore almost unimaginable scale.”
In the current pandemic crisis, we are witnessing this flowering of social solidarity and creativity on a heretofore almost unimaginable scale. Often enabled by social media, community members are reaching out to offer goods and services to those in need. There is now a flourishing mask-making cottage industry. Factories are retooling to produce items needed for coronavirus testing. Breweries are producing hand sanitizers. Donations are pouring into beleaguered food banks as demand soars. Customers are finding ways to keep their favorite restaurants afloat. Cultural institutions are inviting members of the public to participate online in a variety of ways. There is an ongoing effort to recognize the sacrifices of the nation’s healthcare and other front-line workers. Celebrities are raising money for health-related causes. Artists are performing online, on rooftops, and on balconies. In my own community in Colorado, residents go outside at 8:00 p.m. every night to howl together—an activity that our governor encourages.
Even while acknowledging the positive dimensions of disasters, there is also a need to recognize that social solidarity can have a dark side. Although by far not the most common pattern in disaster situations, there can be a tendency for social solidarity to be accompanied by scapegoating and “othering” processes. For example, sociological research has pointed to shared feelings of recreancy that can arise in situations involving hazards and disasters.7William F. Freudenburg, “Risk and Recreancy: Weber, the Division of Labor, and the Rationality of Risk Perceptions,” Social Forces 71, no.4 (1993): 909–932. Recreancy develops when members of the public lose trust in organizations and institutions that they expected to protect them by managing risks, such as corporations and regulatory agencies. Evidence of recreancy is already emerging in this pandemic, targeting entities such as the World Health Organization, which putatively was late in providing pandemic guidance. If developments in other countries such as Italy are any indication, US society will soon enter a phase of recreancy in which different entities, from political figures and government institutions to corporations and even scientists, could become objects of public acrimony.
More troubling patterns involve the scapegoating of “others” thought to be implicated in a particular crisis or disaster. Numerous examples exist; for example, following the September 11 attacks, Muslims became a target of hate speech and attacks. In this pandemic, we have already seen alarming examples of scapegoating, beginning with people of Chinese ancestry, Chinese-owned businesses, Chinatowns across the country, and the Chinese government itself.
Disasters and the social order
A key tenet of social science disaster research is that disasters reveal and amplify both the capabilities and the vulnerabilities of the societies in which they occur. Disasters are widely recognized as having differential effects in developed and less-developed societies, with the dollar value of economic losses higher in the former and deaths significantly higher in the latter. In the United States, research on disasters has increasingly focused on how the interrelated forces of social class, race, gender, and other axes of inequality and difference shape the ways in which diverse groups within society experience disasters and struggle to recover. These aspects of the social order, manifested in so many different ways in everyday life, perhaps matter more strongly during crises. Put simply, disaster experiences and recovery trajectories are shaped by predisaster conditions.“Like disasters, the pandemic is exposing the nature of the social fabric and seeking out its weaknesses.”
We are seeing socioeconomic and other socially structured disparities manifesting themselves on a vast scale in the current pandemic. In many respects, it is as if a catastrophic disaster has stricken the entire society. As of this writing, the death toll from Covid-19 in the United States dwarfs those of all other historic disasters in the Western hemisphere, except for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Sociodemographic groups such as elderly persons, African Americans, and the Latine population are disproportionately affected by the virus. The capacity to cope with the Covid-19 risk and its economic fallout is a direct result of longstanding social inequities: those who remain on the payroll when working from home versus those who do not get paid unless they show up at a work site; salaried full-time versus gig workers; those with abundant access to healthy food versus the food insecure; those with health insurance versus those without; citizens and green-card holders versus those who are undocumented; the securely housed versus the precariously housed and the homeless. While the broader economic effects of the pandemic are yet to play out, it is likely that those effects will resemble what has been documented after many disasters, with smaller, women-owned and minority-owned businesses experiencing or facing demise, retail and service sectors hard-hit, and business fates being shaped by prepandemic assets and credit access. Like disasters, the pandemic is exposing the nature of the social fabric and seeking out its weaknesses.
The pandemic and its aftermath are certain to give rise to research on the topics discussed here. For example, it will be important to document and explain structurally related disparities in mortality, morbidity, and longer-term health outcomes of the pandemic, as well as its differential short- and longer-term economic impacts. It will also be critical to understand how Covid-19 risks and risk-related information are perceived and acted upon, and with what effect, in our increasingly polarized society, in which trust in science has been steadily declining among political conservatives but not those with other political affiliations.8Gordon Gauchat, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974–2010,” American Sociological Review 77, no. 2 (2012): 167–187. The need for systematic evaluation of pandemic containment and economic assistance programs will be enormous. More broadly, there is an urgent need for an official, comprehensive, multifaceted, multidisciplinary investigation, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission Report, focusing on the origins, dynamics, and consequences of the Covid-19 catastrophe, to identify lessons learned.
Banner photo credit: 湯川 伸矢/Flickr
→Kathleen Tierney, Disasters: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2019).
→Bob Bolin and Liza C. Kurtz, “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability,” in Handbook of Disaster Research, 2nd ed., eds. Havidan Rodriguez, William Donner, and Joseph E, Trainor (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018), 181-203.