Health Politics

Those who fear disease most are most likely to prefer authoritarian regimes

For anthropologists interested in analyzing the parasitic stress theory, Covid-19 is a perfect case study.


Written by Lipton Matthews

Republished with permission from

Covid-19 has unleashed a pandemic of restrictive measures on the population. Lockdowns and mask mandates are becoming widespread. Libertarians have been vociferously denouncing Covid-19 containment strategies as draconian. Evolutionary psychologists, however, argue that reactions in favor of government restrictions are the norm in environments where the public fears contamination. According to the parasitic stress theory popularized by Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher, societies with a high prevalence of diseases are more supportive of authoritarian policies. This is unsurprising because to prevent transmissions experts often recommend limiting movement. Due to fear, citizens would have a vested interest in promoting policies claiming to lower infections. Likewise, the aversion to contracting Covid-19 has forced many to advocate hysterical policies. For anthropologists interested in analyzing the parasitic stress theory, Covid-19 is a perfect case study.

Murray, Schaller, and Suedfeld (2013) in their discussion of the relationship between pathogens and authoritarianism elucidate the importance of disease control mechanisms in germ-rich societies. “Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions, therefore, posed a health threat to self and others.” Unfortunately, as Covid-19 has demonstrated, people are willing to subject themselves to rituals even if they have no discernible impact on deterring transmissions. One must appear to be complying with the crowd or face expulsion. Humans are emotional creatures, and hence they give primacy to symbolic gestures. For example, recently researchers noted that “no direct evidence indicates that public mask wearing protects either the wearer or others.” Yet despite the dearth of evidence in favor of wearing masks, the researchers nevertheless advocated their use in the name of group solidarity: “Given the severity of this pandemic and the difficulty of control…we suggest appealing to altruism and the need to protect others.”

Blind conformity to public opinion is also evident when analysts recommend mask mandates after admitting that they “may be far from enough to prevent an increase in new infections.” Although the evidence does not support containment measures such as mask mandates and lockdowns, they remain quite popular among the intelligentsia. However, this pattern is consistent with the parasitic stress theory. To some, the costs of tolerating dissent in an environment compatible with diseases are too onerous, so contrarians are usually viewed as a threat to society. Therefore, in the era of Covid-19 ideas in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy will be neutered.

For instance, writing in The Spiked Magazine, Fraser Myers exposes Google for censoring the Great Barrington Declaration:

The Great Barrington Declaration was spearheaded by Martin Kulldorff from Harvard Medical School, Sunetra Gupta from Oxford University and Jay Bhattacharya from Stanford University Medical School. The declaration was bound to cause controversy for going against the global political consensus, which holds that lockdowns are key to minimising mortality from Covid-19. Instead, the signatories argue that younger people, who face minimal risk from the virus, should be able to go about their lives unimpeded, while resources are devoted to protecting the most vulnerable. But for making this argument, the declaration has been censored. Tech giant Google has decided that the view of these scientists should be covered up. Most users in English-speaking countries, when they google ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, will not be directed to the declaration itself but to articles that are critical of the declaration—and some that amount to little more than smears of the signatories.

Moreover, numerous examples suggest that Covid-19 is being leveraged as a justification for authoritarianism. Consider the insightful observation of Steven Simon in an article for the journal Survival:

In illuminating COVID-19’s utility for power-grabbers, observers have tended to point to three cases: Israel, Hungary and the Philippines. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of manipulating pandemic fears to delay his prosecution on corruption charges by shuttering the courts, hamstringing his centrist opponent, Benjamin Gantz, and intensifying electronic surveillance of Israeli society. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has cited the crisis to extract from a right-leaning legislature remarkably broad powers to suppress dissent. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, after mishandling the response to the pandemic, has moved to quash criticism and harshly imposed quarantine and curfew rules, ordering that violators be shot dead.

Similarly, as Zmigrod et al. (2020) remind us, the changes wrought by pandemics are often long term: “Historical pathogen prevalence still predicts contemporary ideological attitudes, and so if Covid-19 elevates the allure of authoritarian ideologies, the effects could be long-lasting.” Covid-19 has nurtured authoritarian sentiments, and the residues will remain long after we have discovered a vaccine. Based on the present environment, measures may become more stringent. Therefore, the only option available to proponents of liberty is to be a bulwark against tyranny by strongly opposing the violations of human rights in the name of preventing Covid-19.


Contact Lipton Matthews

Lipton Matthews is a researcher, business analyst, and contributor to, The Federalist, and the Jamaica Gleaner. He may be contacted at or on Twitter (@matthewslipton).