COVID-19 exceptionalism23 August 2021
By Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy-Hollies
Exceptionalism is the idea that a country is superior to other countries and in virtue of this superiority it is not subject to the same constraints. Some political leaders assumed that their countries were invulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, leading to a slow response, delegitimization of medical advice, and failure to engage in international cooperation.
For instance, in February 2020, Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, argued that some governments in the world should stand by freedom of exchange, contrasting the “irrational” panic caused by Coronavirus. He compared the UK to a superhero: “Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
Prior to the announcement of the first lockdown in March 2020, the UK refused to follow the examples of China, Taiwan, and Korea where restrictions had been imposed on citizens to contain the spread of the virus. Commentators identified love of freedom as a key theme in the exceptionalism embodied by Johnson: “The myth of a unique and defining love of personal freedom as a badge of nationhood underpinned a profound reluctance to impose lifesaving restrictions on movement and social gatherings. Other people might put up with that sort of thing, but not the English.”
It is common for us to believe that undesirable events (serious illness or divorce) won’t be part of our lives, even if we have no good reason to think we should be exempt from them. We also tend to believe that we are better than average in a number of domains, from specific skills such as driving to qualities such as attractiveness and intelligence. Moreover, we believe that we can control events on which we exercise limited influence.
Here is an example of these biases at play during the pandemic. Jei is convinced that she has a better immune system than average and that she is not likely to contract COVID-19. Her belief enables Jei to manage stress during the pandemic and sustains her motivation to engage in those safety behaviours that are likely to protect herself and others. This optimistic belief may be better than a fatalistic belief (“There is nothing we can do, nobody can avoid infection”) which would lead to disengagement and inaction. But optimistic beliefs do not always result in effective coping; they can result in denying the threat. In that case, they lift mood significantly in the short-term, because the threat ‘magically disappears’, but lead to taking excessive risks, with consequences for the individual and the community. If Jei convinces herself that she is invincible, she may stop adopting safety behaviours.
Nationalist values are to exceptionalism what self-enhancing beliefs are to unrealistic optimism. If Sylvia is deceived about her driving skills, her prediction that she will win the World Rally Championship is unrealistically optimistic. If Boris Johnson has an unfounded belief that the UK is well placed to deal with a threat due to its national character, then his prediction that the country will respond to the threat successfully is also unrealistically optimistic.
During the COVID-19 first wave, many citizens continued to underestimate the seriousness of the health threat despite the increasing number of hospitalisations and deaths. A leading factor in accounting for these behaviours is the prevalence of confabulation: we tend to explain choices and actions despite not knowing what factors actually influence our behaviour. Those explanations are sincerely offered but are biased as they tend to present our choices and actions as rational. Exceptionalist attitudes, with their reliance on national values, may have been exactly what people needed to justify their rule-flouting behaviour: it is not unreasonable to refuse to wear masks in the US because freedom “is in the country’s DNA”. Anti-maskers in Florida defended their stance as a way to exercise their God-given right to breathe and to embrace freedom and democracy.
When people interpret their behaviour in a way which is consistent with a positive self-image and cherished values, but distorts reality, confabulation brings various epistemic costs: psychological factors actually driving behaviour are ignored and potential hypocrisy is masked. In the case of COVID-19, reckless and harmful behaviour went unchallenged because people justified it to themselves by appealing to personal and national values, compromising attempts to control the spread of the virus.
Lessons from the pandemic
Can anything be done in the future to avoid the mistakes that were made in tackling the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic? Recognising that our knowledge is limited can facilitate the acceptance of peer feedback and expert advice. The belief that we have a special claim to knowledge (need for uniqueness) is a factor contributing to the adoption and spread of conspiracy theories. Further, it is possible to turn our hardwired optimism into a force for good, if we realise that we can control something even in scenarios of great uncertainty. We can control own own behaviour and make our contribution to efforts to overcome the threat.
In her communications with the public, Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, regularly referred to scientific findings whilst also allowing for some hope and optimism. Cautious optimism can bolster preparations to face a threat, rather than turn into a denial of its severity. Merkel also acknowledged the success of other countries in tackling the virus: she recognised the experience of South Korea that had faced a different Coronavirus five years earlier.
In sum, if we want to see ourselves and our nations as exceptional in something, maybe this something should be an appreciation of the importance of cooperation and of expert knowledge in tackling threats. Exceptionalism and optimism do not inspire successful responses to a crisis unless the values we attribute to ourselves and our nations include epistemic humility and willingness to cooperate.