Who’s to blame for COVID-19? Mixed methods study examines politicized fear and health behaviors

It’s safe to assume American politics has played a significant role in the COVID-19 pandemic; that different ideas about contagion, health behaviors and the actions of governing bodies impacted the spread of the virus and its subsequent effect on our lives. This, of course, was just a theory—until now.

Lisa Hardy, associate professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Anthropology and director of the Social Science Community Engagement Lab, is the lead author on a study that looked at sociocultural responses to the virus and identified differences and similarities in anxiety, fear, blame and perceptions of the country across political divides. This week, “Who is to blame for COVID-19? Examining politicized fear and health behavior through a mixed methods study in the United States” was published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.

Hardy and her colleagues Leah Mundell, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, and Eric Otenyo, professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, worked with researchers throughout the world on the study, which began in the first days of the pandemic. The team conducted 60 in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and administered more than 1,000 questionnaires to people living in the U.S. They analyzed the resulting data through an exploratory and confirmatory sequential mixed methods design, integrating both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

“Data indicate anxiety across political differences related to ideas of contagion and the maleficence of a powerful elite,” Hardy said. “Findings on how people understand the nation, politics and pandemic management contribute to understanding dimensions of health behaviors and underlying connections between anxiety and the uptake of conspiracy theories in public health.”

The study found that in the first months of the pandemic, interviewees cited economic inequality, untrustworthy corporations and other entities and the federal government as threats to life and pandemic control. Participants invoked ideas about others to determine blame. Findings reveal heavy associations between lack of safety during a public health crisis and blame of “culture” and government power across the political spectrum.

In later interviews, which occurred during the rollout of the first and second waves of the vaccine, people showed increased similarities across political divides in mistrust of economic inequality and big business. Many people on both sides expressed concern about the rapidity of the development of the vaccine and conflicting or emerging data on efficacy.

According to the study, interviews showed that although political ideologies are different, many blame someone—or something—else for the virus, and, regardless of political leaning, worry about a wealthy and powerful elite.

Additionally, current pandemic responses reflect a long history of xenophobic blame and a climate of anti-Asian racism that has resulted in more than 2,000 reported hate crimes against Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander people across the United States.

“This scapegoating has occurred in everyday acts of hatred and also in the headlines and political speeches of public figures through phrases like ‘the Wuhan coronavirus’ and other tropes linking contagion with people of Asian descent,” Hardy said. “This blame occurs more overtly among those on the political right than it does on the left; however, it is not absent from left voters who also often discussed questions of cultural essentialism as queries rather than objects of blame.”

This research contributes directly to understanding pandemic response and the relationship between political and economic ideologies on health beliefs and possible behaviors. Hardy hopes these findings also demonstrate the benefits of an interdisciplinary use of medical social science methods and theories.

“Medical anthropologists and medical sociologists have the training and tools to delve into human behavior through systematic and mixed methods research and to make use of these methods for crisis response,” she said. “Exploring and documenting ideologies and policy landscapes that contribute to inequality, racism and other forms of injustice utilizes these disciplinary foundations and challenges others to create practical solutions.”

Additional researchers involved in the study are Adi Mana, senior lecturer in the School of Behavioural Sciences at the Peres Academic Center, Israel; and Moran Neuman and Sharón Benheim of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

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