“Maybe there is a beast… Maybe it’s only us,” pondered Simon, in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies.
In the book, a group of juveniles are stranded on a tropical island. Without the constraints of grown-up civilisation, primitive terrors break free from the subconscious and drive the boys hysterical. “The sleep of reason produces monsters”, as Goya wrote. A dream of a terrifying beast lights up the boys’ imaginations and has them jumping at shadows. A fanatical tribe emerges, comprising those most afraid of the island’s invisible enemy; they wear masks which free the id further (“The mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness”), and, crucially, they develop superstitious rituals which they believe will keep the beast at bay.
It doesn’t end well.
The Simpsons is a little more light-hearted. In the classic episode Much Apu About Nothing, the residents of Springfield are terrified by reports of a brown bear roaming the town. The citizens, angry and afraid, demand the mayor do something. Later, as a Bear Patrol van rushes past and a jet flies overhead, Homer sighs contentedly and remarks that there isn’t a bear in sight.
“That’s specious reasoning, Dad,” replies Lisa. “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away… It doesn’t work… It’s just a stupid rock. But I don’t see any tigers around here, do you?”
Homer buys the rock; cum hoc ergo propter hoc.
In the real world, back in May, a JP Morgan report found that, in the vast majority of cases, a country’s coronavirus infection rate actually decreased once the lockdown had ended. In fact, looking at COVID-19 deaths, there is a consistent distribution over time in every country around the world, despite their differing approaches and environments. Coronavirus, as with many things in nature, has followed the distribution of the bell curve.
We were told that totalitarian measures were necessary to flatten this curve. Now, there is no curve, and yet here we are a few months later, in much the same place, with mandatory face masks to boot.
Whether you believe that the government’s measures worked or not is beside the point: ultimately, they will have caused far more damage than the virus ever could. The cure is worse than the disease.
We are seeking refuge in a fox’s den
A report by Her Majesty’s Government predicted that 200,000 people would die from delayed healthcare and economic recession caused by the response to COVID-19. Globally, the UN has estimated that 10,000 children every month are dying from hunger due to coronavirus measures; Oxfam has warned that this could kill 12,000 people per day by 2021. Looking at current data, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield recently explained, “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose…”
Like Chicken Licken, irrationally fearing that the sky is falling down, we are seeking refuge in a fox’s den.
The sad reality is that the state’s response to COVID-19 is having a disastrous effect on mental health – the even sadder reality is that there is no way this could have come as a surprise.
Research stretching back decades has indicated the damaging effects of isolation and confinement. For instance, research has even shown that social isolation among laboratory animals has induced depression and aggression (Bourke & Neigh, 2011; Martin & Brown, 2010; Mathews et al., 2008; Parmigiani et al., 1999). A study with chicks found that being separated from the others resulted, likewise, in depression (e.g., less pecking, less mobility, less exploration) and more distress vocalisations and escape attempts (Rajecki et al., 1977).
Among humans, the findings are much the same. Exploring the effects of isolation and confinement during simulated space exploration, typical symptoms have included fatigue, sleep disorders, stress, neurocognitive changes, and immune system deficits (Pagel & Choukèr, 2016). Those confined to an Antarctica research station over winter have likewise exhibited depression, hostility, sleep disturbance, and impaired cognition (Gunderson, 1974). A review of research concluded that feelings of loneliness heighten sensitivity to social threats, impair executive function, disturb sleep, and lower mental and physical wellbeing (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014). A laboratory experiment found that social isolation was associated with higher levels of: stress, restlessness, hostility, depression, worry, regret, hallucinations, vivid dreams, daydreaming, feelings of unreality, and difficulty thinking and speaking (Zuckerman et al., 1968). On that last point, some studies have likewise found evidence that isolation produces deficits in cognitive function (Arranz et al., 2009; Garrido et al., 2013; Huang et al., 2011).
In medical settings, social isolation has been shown to increase anxiety and depression, while decreasing self-esteem and sense of control (Gammon, 1998); another study of isolated patients likewise found that it produces anxiety, depression, sleep withdrawal, regression, and delusions (Kellerman, Rigler & Siegel, 1977); and, a literature review concurred that isolation in hospitalised patients was found to inculcate depression, anxiety, anger-hostility, fear, and loneliness (Abad, Fearday & Safdar, 2010). It is little wonder, therefore, that a recent Babies in Lockdown report suggests babies are being more clingy, violent, and upset since lockdown began; the mind boggles at the toll this circus is having on the minds of future generations.
Lockdown may even be counterproductive to fighting coronavirus – that is, via stress, social isolation harms the immune system. Social isolation increases cortisol levels and activity in the hypothalamic-pituitary andrenal axis, both indicators of increased stress sensitivity (Cacioppo et al., 2015; Sapolsky, Alberts & Altmann, 1997). Likewise, loneliness has been linked with increased cortisol levels in human beings (Adam et al., 2006; Cacioppo et al., 2000; Doane & Adam, 2010; Hawkley et al., 2003; Pressman et al., 2005; Steptoe et al., 2004). Importantly, this then increases plasma levels of glucocorticoid, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which affect the immune system and increase susceptibility to disease (Cruces et al., 2014).
In short, lockdown is murder
While naysayers may pick holes in specific studies, the quantity and consistency of evidence is overwhelming: lockdown is stressful, it harms cognitive function, and it makes you susceptible to disease. Ultimately, the toll is high. A meta-analytic review (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015) found that social isolation increases the likelihood of mortality by 29%. In short, lockdown is murder.
Evidence suggests the above findings are generalisable to COVID-19: a 2004 paper investigating responses to SARS in Toronto found that those subjected to quarantine experienced relatively high levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which increased with the length of the quarantine (Hawryluck et al., 2004). More recently, a review of studies found that the three conducted during COVID-19 reported restlessness, irritability, anxiety, and clinginess in children, while pre-COVID studies found that the most common diagnoses among children after quarantine were acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, grief, and, again, post-traumatic stress disorder (Imran et al., 2020).
If anything, the current situation may be worse than that investigated by previous research. Rather than quarantining specific individuals, the entire (almost global) population has been subject to a programme of so-called social distancing, which reaches far beyond staying at home.
There is solid evidence showing a consistent pattern that keeping a social distance from others is socially destructive.
In Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiments, the majority of participants gave what they thought to be a fatal electric shock to someone in another room, because they had been instructed to do so by a researcher in a lab coat (no doubt a WHO badge would work as well today). Importantly, Milgram found that social distance contributed to the participants’ ruthless apathy: when the person being shocked was in the same room, compliance with administering the fatal voltage decreased from 65% to 40%. Being close to someone – seeing their face – humanises them and increases pro-social behaviour.
Similarly, for example, social discounting refers to the finding that people are more pro-social towards those who are closer to them (Jones & Rachlin, 2006); multiple studies researching the proximity principle have shown that physical closeness induces psychological liking (e.g., Kahn & McGaughey, 1977; Shin et al., 2019); the identifiable victim effect has shown that people are more generous towards causes which highlight an affected individual than those which use statistics (Lee & Feeley, 2016); and Vohs et al. (2006) found that being primed with money made people sit further apart from others and opt to work on their own, as well as donate less money to a cause, volunteer less time to help others, and be less likely to help someone pick up some dropped pencils, suggesting that isolation and self-serving behaviour share common psychological processes.
Face masks, meanwhile, are simply an extension of lockdown to the outside world – they serve to keep us socially and psychologically distanced from our fellow man.
A thesis submitted to the University of Sussex (Cooper, 1999) reviewed social psychology studies and psychodynamic theories, and conducted multiple novel experiments, concluding that masks reduce self-awareness, consciousness, and identity. If you doubt the research, ask yourself: do you think wearing a face mask will have any kind of psychological effect; and, if so, what is it likely to be? There is a reason masks are chiefly worn by anarchists, criminals and perverts.
In the real world, anecdotal evidence for the antisocial effects of masks is mounting. For example, in a video posted to Twitter, one young woman was screamed at by a masked man, well in excess of 300lb, about the danger she posed to his health. My fiancée, 5’2 and sweet, is confronted every time she uses public transport, and was even once followed by an outraged masked man. The Daily Mail recently reported that British women feel more aggressed by men since mask mandates have come in; Claire Barnett, the Executive Director of UN Women UK, warned about “the anonymity face coverings can provide leading to further rises in harassment and threatening actions towards women, girls and minoritised groups.”
Similarly, a poll of 2,000 people by consulting firm Redfield and Wilson Strategies found that 43% of respondents reported having seen people arguing with someone over their decision not to wear a face mask, and 37% of these have seen it devolve into physical aggression. Incidents of “mask rage”, according to The Guardian (of all places), are making disabled people fearful of venturing out in public: the online rag recently carried a testimonial a man who has a disability exempting him from wearing a mask, yet received a “complete torrent of abuse” in public and was told, “If you can’t wear a mask, you shouldn’t be allowed out.”
All of this suggests a nasty, intolerant, insular culture developing – which comes as no surprise to psychologists. The public’s recent obsession with contagion has activated what is known as the behavioural immune system, where disgust produces socially conservative responses. For example, when people are quizzed on their politics next to a hand sanitizer, they identify themselves as more conservative (Helzer & Pizarro, 2011); or, when people take part in a survey about a minority group in a room with an unpleasant smell, they are less tolerant (Golec, Waldzus & Cypryanska, 2014). This is an evolved response to limit the spread of disease, by suppressing nonconformist behaviour and excluding unfamiliar people.
An obsession with purity has made 2020 a bad time to be a heretic
In the real world, coronavirus has driven ‘cancel culture’ into overdrive. With the disease forcing people to focus on purity, they have appropriately become puritans. Anyone who dares to poke their head above the parapet and express a heretical opinion is promptly punished. Going outside without a face mask, questioning the safety of rushed vaccines on Facebook, or writing an article like this will invariably result in a sharp electric ‘shock’ of shaming from the hive mind at large. Recently, Tom Goodwin, a (former) senior executive at Publicis, was forced out of his job for Tweeting about how the non-COVID deaths caused by lockdown outweigh the COVID deaths themselves. In short, an obsession with purity has made 2020 a bad time to be a heretic. The bizarre contrast between, say, how walking in the park was shamed while Black Lives Matter congregations were celebrated suggests there are no bases in standards or logic: this is an irrational, mindless cult, and it is unlikely to end well. The original Puritans burnt ‘witches’ at the stake to inflict psychological torture on the crowd and keep them under the thumb; today, digital witch hunts end at online mobs and wrecked careers. Yet, as the German romantic poet Christian Heine once said, “Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people.”
The state, and those members of the public who mindlessly support its crushing and destructive measures, will have a different sort of handwashing to do in the coming years. “What need fear we who knows it, when none can call our power to account,” asked Lady Macbeth, as she scrubbed her hands raw.
Those who are on board with this – with the lockdown, the social distancing, the face masks – sanctimoniously heckle those who conscientiously object (“Granny killer!”) while turning a blind eye to the suicides, poverty, and social dissolution they are tacitly supporting.
That is not to say they are evil in the traditional sense – rather, they are participating in what is known as banal or everyday evil. Coline Covington describes this as “the result of a particular sort of mindlessness, a failure to be a person which is the result of surrendering one’s mind, memory or capacity for self-reflection and therefore shame to a totalitarian regime or leader… This is a state of mind in which the de-personalisation of the other takes over and paves the way for licenced brutality… because it is a state of mind, we are all susceptible to it”. Covington explains that we are particularly susceptible when individual or group identity is threatened – such as, by face masks perhaps (Cooper, 1999), or by social isolation (Thoits, 1983).
The public use masks to cover their face, but it may as well be their eyes: we are sleepwalking into a totalitarian nightmare. A section of society has been screaming about fascism since Brexit, but now fascism has actually arrived, and they are cheering it on.
Ultimately, the state’s response to COVID-19 is indefensible and a terrifying portent of what’s to come. It has engendered disconnection through social distancing, isolation through lockdown, and deindividuation through face masks – with signs pointing to social deterioration and psychological damage as a result. This is to say nothing of the devastating impact on the economy and, worse, human life.
If you still think these measures are for the common good, perhaps the lockdown really has dulled your senses. Perhaps, with Daddy Government’s permission, you should get out more.