Infectious waves of illness that flash flood through cities, regions and—rarely but occasionally—all continents, date back throughout recorded history. The psychological scars from past massive death tolls are barely known about among the generations alive today. But echoes of the trauma are passed intergenerationally through parents’ warnings, nursery rhymes and instinctual disgust for signs of disease, fuss about fleas, or fear of bats and rats.
We know now (mostly) the source of the bacteria or viruses that ravage young or old, well or ill, seemingly at random. But for much of known history, no doubt even before the Athenian Plague 2,450 years ago, shock waves of crippling and often quickly fatal infections were thought to be divine acts of retribution.
Many reactions to the current pandemic mirror the psychological responses of our ancestors to similar threats.
Sometimes entire societies were obliterated, perceived to have been punished for their sinful way of life. Outcast segments of society—marked for some difference or disobedience—were often blamed. The Black Death and other plagues were a convenient rationale for the extermination of folk seen as pests by the dominant.
Many reactions to the current pandemic mirror the psychological responses of our ancestors to similar threats. The fear of contagion and death raced ahead of the actual virus, as it did in times past, shocking politicians and the public into the most extreme act of mass quarantine ever. Everyone was marked a potential carrier. This didn’t stop the urge to scapegoat: China, immigrants and ethnic minorities, people who smoke or vape, and many other groups have become convenient targets.
Fear of infection, or worse the sense of panic that your child, partner or parent might be touched by the invisible COVID-19 wand of death, combined with uncertainty about the future, was stressful enough for anyone. But people higher up Marmot’s social ladder stocked the cellar, bunkered down and ordered in anything they needed. Some cheered for the lockdown and the mental space and family time it offered. They might clink their glasses together a bit more than usual during lockdown, but psychologically they’ll be fine.
Not so, the communities who are always last to benefit from the advantages of living in societies. Not so, the people who can barely protect themselves from everyday threats common at the bottom rungs of the ladder, where stress and powerlessness are life. Especially hard hit are the people who didn’t have jobs that could be done remotely and the workers laid off en masse. Add the extra threat of disease and it’s just one more reason to smoke, have another drink or use other drugs to cope.
We’ve long known this. Research* on the effects of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina and other disasters around the world has shown that smoking, alcohol and other drug use (if supply hadn’t been cut off) went up during, and for a long time after, these disasters.
To check if this happening again, my organization is conducting an international survey—which you can do here. We think public health could have done more to advise governments on how to lessen the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health.
Instead, prohibitionists within the public health sector seized the chance to advance their preexisting agendas. Around the world, they called for tobacco, vaping products and alcohol to be deemed “non-essential”—in the case of nicotine products, they claimed, without evidence, that they exacerbated the virus.
This caused more panic among vulnerable populations who use these products at higher rates—increasing the triggers to smoke and drink. Despite protests, the government of South Africa completely banned the sale of tobacco and alcohol during lockdown forcing up to 20 percent of the adult population who smoke into mass withdrawals. Many more than that drink alcohol, and the natural outcomes of prohibition have occurred: looting of shops, disregard for lockdown rules as people are forced to go out hunting for alcohol, and harms associated with people brewing their own.
Should we be surprised that it is the most marginalized communities who will be disproportionately impacted by both drug and lockdown rules, and that they will be further beaten down by enforcement, fines, criminal records? Not if we’re familiar with history.
Denying people a vape, a tipple, or access to any drug they are dependent upon—with potentially lethal impacts—has nothing to do with preventing the spread of the coronavirus! It is no different to those acts of old when some people in power took the opportunity to throw a few extra bodies onto the pile of the infected. For people already clinging to societies’ lower rungs, it could turn out that the overindulgence in power by politicians and bureaucrats becomes the bigger killer.
*Nandi A., Galea S., Ahern J., & Vlahov D. Probable cigarette dependence, PTSD, and depression after an urban disaster: Results from a population survey of New York City residents 4 months after September 11, 2001. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 68, 4, 299-310. 2005.
*Erskine N., Daley V., Stevenson S., Rhodes B., & Beckert, L. Smoking prevalence increases following Canterbury earthquakes. Scientific World Journal. 1–4. 2013.
The Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking, of which the author is director, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW). The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has also received grants from FSFW.
Photo of a miniature by Pierart dou Tielt, circa 1353—“The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death”—via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.