Stay home during Corona crisis or be judged.

Covidiots and the ‘stay home behavioural script’

10 minutes to read
Paper
Lisa van Turnhout
22/02/2021

The Corona virus, which has infected millions of people and caused more than 250 thousand deaths worldwide, has not only captured the world’s attention, but also shown how quickly and profoundly cultural norms can change. The corona crisis has changed the way we perceive others and ourselves, including 'covidiots.' The norms we once took for granted are turned upside down.

 

Flipping the script on "Covidiots'

In Western countries, shaking hands as a greeting is very basic and old cultural norm. However, this has now been advised against by prime minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, an act unthinkable when taken out of the context of a pandemic. However, after imposing this new rule, Mark Rutte accidently shook hands with Jaap van Dissel, head of the infectious disease department of the Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM). An entirely ‘normal’ act suddenly became embarrassing: our moralized behavioural scripts have changed.

This article analyses two groups of people which appeared in response to the pandemic, following almost opposite behavioural scripts. The ‘Covidiots’ are a group who advocate ignoring the Corona measures taken by the government, while the other group urges people to do as the government and the experts say. In this article, we call this group the ‘Stay homers’, since they strongly advocate self-quarantining. The terms 'Covidiots' and 'stay-homers' are unequal in the sense that a derrogatory term has emerged for people who do not obey social norms. 

In this article, we first explain how moralized behavioural scripts form the attitudes of these two groups. Second, we explain the characteristics of these two groups and the behaviour they cause in other people by analysing the hashtag ‘Covidiots’ on Twitter and 'Covidiot' shame-groups on Facebook. Finally, we conclude with a summary of how the Corona virus pandemic has caused new tensions in society.

Deviating from moralized behavioural scripts

Corona virus has triggered a shift from a society governed by politicians to a society governed by medical experts, in which individual freedoms are sacrificed societal health: "It becomes the discipline of the scientific protection of society; it becomes the science of the biological protection of the species" (Foucault, 2003). Individual freedom is on a constant par with the health of the community. The big differences between the ‘stay-homers’ and the Covidiots are rooted in this dichotomy between collective health and individual freedom.

Moralized behaviour scripts (MBS) are imaginable situations in non-random spacetime which provoke normative, expected and presupposed behaviour (Blommaert, 2015). They are non-random in that they appear in reaction to a specific event. Spacetime in this sense refers to the specific place and moment in which the behavioral scripts occur. These scripts are able to inform us about how to act in certain situations through the strong socially-normative judgments we attach to them. MBS during the current pandemic emerged from "a power exchange of the judicial – governmental force and the expert opinion of doctors" (Foucault, 2003). Doctors, who have no means of governing a country, inform politicians on how to govern a society susceptible to a pandemic.

The MBS during the current pandemic emerged from "a power exchange of the judicial – governmental force and the expert opinion of doctors."

The Covidiots' attitudes towards COVID-19 health measures are characterized by deviating from the current, new moralized behavioural scripts. The Covidiots deliberately disregard the moralized behavioural script of staying home and maintaining distance. This is in line with the definition of Covidiots suggested by the Urban Dictionary: someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety.

What is most surprising and interesting about Covidiots is that their now deviant behaviour would have been entirely normative before our collective health was at stake. Before the pandemic, when someone sneezed in public, the people around them would say “bless you’’ and continue their business as usual. However, during the Corona-virus pandemic, everyone around the sneezing person is alarmed. Now that their personal safety is at stake, the behavioural script has changed. Sneezing in public without your mouth covered is something a Covidiot would do. We automatically make a strongly moralized judgment when this happens: the sneezing person is dangerous. They are not just sneezing: they are a Covidiot, endangering the health of society.

In contrast, the ‘stay-homers’ are a mainstream group in the global Corona public sphere who advocate staying home and trying to keep society as safe as possible. Staying home and keeping distance are the moralized behavioural scripts developed by experts and advised or imposed by governments. The stay-home groups can be regarded as a normative control functioning in line with official institutions like the government and police.

Mainstream media play the role of normativity crusaders, portraying the stay-home ideology as an objective fact. A headline from the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, for example, states: Bizarre: despite corona - prohibition big demonstration in Berlin. In other words, it is bizarre that despite the prohibition of demonstrating in (large) groups due to COVID, people are disobeying these rules and endangering others. The ideology is clear: stay home, otherwise you are bizarre or abnormal.

A surprising and very recent nuance is brought on by people who not only contest the Covidiots, but also contest the government, in particular when it comes to relaxing measures as infections are (slowly) decreasing. These people are very frightened by the disease and the damage it has done and refuse to go back to working in person. Some parents want to keep their children at home despite many primary schools opening.

Criticizing Covidiots on social media

Multiple Covidiot-and-corona-shaming groups appeared on Facebook between March and April 2020, and the hashtag ‘covidiot’ trended. These groups and hashtags were aimed at shaming people who don't follow government corona measures or general behavioural scripts that emerged from the corona-crisis. They are created by people who advocate staying home and keeping distance.

An example of this is the Facebook group Covidiots UK‘’Naming, Shaming and general highlighting of people that can’t seem to stay at home. People that just can’t do as they have been clearly instructed to do. The smart arse’s, the ones that will do as they please, the Covid sunbathers….. The very people that put all of us at risk of making a very bad situation much much worse!’’ Not only Facebook is aware of Covidiots; the hashtag #COVIDIOTS on Twitter is very popular as well.

#Covidiots in the Twitterverse

In this ‘Covidiot group’, people are ‘spotted’ wearing face masks incorrectly and called names. Surprisingly, sometimes people in the comments side with the 'Covidiots.' This shows that ‘Covidiot shaming’ has limits. Covidiot-shaming groups are created by people who strongly following the ‘stay home’ behavioral script to vent about the people not obeying these scripts.

Groups like these, centered around public opinions, are not a coincidence. We are always included in a group or classification. We do not choose most of the groups we belong to, but rather they are chosen for us by norms deriving from control and measurement: we don’t call ourselves ‘covidiots’ when we disagree with corona-measures. The function of this ‘grouping’ is to detect risk, or abnormality. This risk is the reason why people attach moral judgments to very small behavior details.

''Covidiot'' Facebook groups

Counter-groups

Among Covidiots, there exists a smaller group who believes - and proudly proclaims - that the corona-crisis is 'made up' to suppress citizens. Their mentality varies from ‘the government is overreacting’ to ‘it’s all a conspiracy from the new world order to control us.’

The Dutch news reported about one of these conspiracy theorists, a woman named  “Nana”, who describes herself only as “a mother of two.” Nana's Facebook group about 5G and its correlation with the Coronavirus outbreak became the biggest anti-5G group on social media in a very short time. These theories led to fifteen telecom masts being set on fire in the Netherlands.

She is not alone. Some groups are more concerned with radiation, poverty and capitalism, as they organise demonstrations against capitalism, for human rights and for freedom of the people. 

In the U.S., small minorities are actively protesting Corona measures, arguing they have gone too far. These ‘patriots’ wave Americans flag and wear t-shirts with ‘’Freedom Keeper’’ printed on them. Others have been seen holding signs that say ‘’Free hugs’’ and ‘’Faith over Fear’’.

In London, dozens of people got arrested for protesting against the Coronavirus lockdown in Hyde Park. They argued that the virus is fake, and ‘’Some of those present continued to promote the scientifically impossible conspiracy theory that the pandemic has been caused by the deployment of 5G masts,’’ Sky news reported.

 

Meanwhile in the counter - sphere

These groups have received a lot of criticism on both Facebook and Twitter. Their discourses emerged in reaction to mainstream Moralized Behavior Scripts, involving themes of freedom, suppression, anti-vaccination, patriotism, and fake news. This group of people have their own news sources that criticize mainstream ones. These news sources share the same ideas as the groups protesting lockdowns. This group could be called Corona-sceptics.

The modern individual is even less free and autonomous than the modern individual Foucault wrote about in the twentieth century.

Freedom being a prominent theme in these counter-discourses is not a coincidence. The modern individual is even less free and autonomous than the modern individual Foucault wrote about in the twentieth century, especially when society feels it is at risk. The power structures securing normality and reducing risk have become highly advanced due to technological advancements. Algorithms track everything we do online and by means of our online connection we are always traceable. 

Apps have now been developed to fight the coronavirus. These apps are supposed to help health institutions conduct contact tracing faster and more efficiently in order to slow down infections. This is an example of instruments and norms for measuring. The function of these norms is to regulate behaviour (Blommaert, 2020).

New but normal: already embedded in commercial narratives

 

Conclusion

Data research on Twitter and Facebook point towards a dichotomy in public opinion regarding the Corona pandemic. On the one hand, there’s the established ‘stay home movement’, who are in line with the ‘covidiot shamers’ to a certain degree. They are mainstream and represented in general moralized behavioural scripts. On the other hand, there’s the Covidiots who ignore social distancing or don’t believe in the Corona virus' existence at all.

This dichotomy in public opinion shows that our moralized behavioural scripts have changed at an unprecedented speed and with unprecedented cultural ambiguity. People who do not act according to the new norms are considered 'covidiots.' People who do follow the rules are considered heroes or at least supporters of heroic hospital workers. Shaming of covidiots happens both in the digital and the physical public sphere. By doing this, other people’s behaviour is measured and regulated, which is also done by official institutions.

 

References

Blommaert, J. (2015). Language, behavioral scripts, and valuation: Comments on “Transnationalizing Chineseness” . accessed on May 8th [Online]  

Foucault, M. (2003)  Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975. London: Picador.

Youtube. (2020, May 1). Jan Blommaert on Abnormal - Life after Foucault [Video file].