Emilio C. Viano,
Professor, American University, Washington DC and East China University of Political Science and Law, Shanghai
The Coronavirus COVID-19 has brought the world a universal public health pandemic accompanied by lifestyle changes that alter our time-tested routines. The various reactions to the Coronavirus, be they by choice or mandatory, oblige us to modify our usual hours, lessen or heighten the likelihood of various types of crime and victimization, and bring about considerable upheavals in the criminal justice system. For criminologists, victimologists, criminal law and criminal justice academics, professionals and students, the virus provides novel and worthy experimental conditions that newly examine explanatory theories of crime and the effectiveness of using different approaches and diverse policies.
The chosen or mandatory responses to COVID-19 force us to vary our normal hours, decrease or increase the possibility of different types of crime and victimization, and trigger unprecedented challenges in the criminal justice system. For criminologists, victimologists, criminal justice academics, professionals and students, the virus offers new and valuable situations for experiments that test crime-related theories and evaluate how effective the application of diverse practices and alternative policies can be.
Disparate measures to limit the spread of the pandemic, like social distancing, wearing face masks, shelter-in-place, shutting down businesses, working and schooling virtually, restricting or forbidding group gatherings, and optional or obligatory codes of conduct introduce a new and complicated conceptual framework to control perspectives and methods for investigating and intervening in the areas of crime, justice and victimization while the Coronavirus crisis rages. This crisis is not limited to health. It is an economic one as well, affecting people, companies, state institutions and budgets.
Since the Coronavirus impacts all facets of public and working life, social scientists have a rare chance to compile real-time data on a large variety of pandemic challenges. The impact on every facet of communal, individual, social and work life; on careers and the investigation of curtailed human contacts; on the concern about contracting the disease, loss of employment and its financial impact, and on the mounting instances of domestic conflicts is of deep interest for practically all disciplines, considering how unique this worldwide phenomenon is.
The fact that in the United States, for example, wearing or not wearing a mask has been considered by many as a political statement for or against one or the other presidential candidate in 2020 is an unexpected, unique and troubling phenomenon. Economists zoom on the dramatic disruption of the employment and provision of supplies and their impact on the market. Political scientists are especially occupied analyzing politics during this pandemic when government policies and decisions consistently require a give and take between safeguarding public health, restarting the economy, respecting civil liberties and predicting politicians’ future, especially if they are running for office.
Besides being a major health crisis, this worldwide pandemic is also an economic tsunami overwhelming people, companies, and state institutions and budgets. For criminology, victimology, criminal law, and criminal justice, living in this time of pandemic thrusts upon society and decision-makers a wide number of complicated choices, like ensuring public safety versus caring for the health of those controlled by the criminal justice system, also including those who work within it. Cutting the prison population fast to prevent massive infections and loss of life in prisons clashes with worries about freeing so many prisoners into the community, with the possibility of a high recidivism rate.
The Coronavirus pandemic has revealed a deep-seated diffidence, prejudice and rejection on the part of many people of the scientific establishment, of its findings and of its influence on lifestyle, public policy and the law.
Various countermeasures to contain the pandemic, such as social distancing, use of face masks, shelter-in-place, business closings, virtual work and schooling, limited or prohibited group meetings, and voluntary or mandatory codes of conduct provide a new and complex conceptual framework including new perspectives and approaches to everyone’s standing, role and rights in society.
Quite troubling is the rejection by significant numbers of people in many settings, including advanced countries, like for example, the United States among others, of the very existence, devastating impact, rapid spread and deadly consequences of the Coronavirus itself as affirmed by scientific sources (McCarthy, 2020). Polls taken in the United States showed that as much as 31 percent of the respondents believed that the scientific statements about the existence, spread, number of people infected and especially of people dying because of the Coronavirus were false and exaggerated for political reasons, that is to disparage the sitting President in his quest for reelection (Mitchell et al. ii, 2020; Romano, 2020). Effectively many people, frequently classified as politically conservative and right-wing, deemed the Coronavirus pandemic to be a hoax perpetrated by liberal activists on the unsuspecting public (Joey, 2020).
This misconception has not been limited to the United States. In many other countries, similar beliefs were widely spread. At one point in Brazil, for example, some people accepted as true a rumor presented as a fact that caskets supposedly containing victims of the pandemic for burial were actually filled with stones to «make-believe» that the epidemic was deadly, this because of the political objective to undermine the country’s President.
Resistance by certain people to the recommendations of experts and normally respected governmental health agencies to wear a mask at least in public, practice social distance, avoid crowded places like bars, gatherings, demonstrations, parties and the like, wash one’s hands frequently and even to vaccines against Coronavirus has been fierce.
Governmental policies regulating various commercial and leisure businesses and at times ordering that they be closed, or function on a reduced schedule were loudly protested, resisted and even openly disobeyed. Even law enforcement officials in certain areas announced that they would not enforce those measures and rules, openly defying superior authorities. President Trump publicly urged citizens of certain states in the Union to rise up and «liberate» their state from the yoke of restrictions on businesses, schools, and people’s social lives adopted by pertinent local authorities to limit the spread of the Coronavirus.
There are indeed indications that the perception by the public of scientists as experts worthy of respect and trust has been significantly damaged by the Coronavirus crisis. A recently published paper, «Revenge of the Experts: Will Covid-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science?»(Eichengreen et al., 2020), addresses how being exposed to prior epidemics impacts the confidence level of various people in science and scientists. The study joined data collected by a 2018 study by the Wellcome Trust of more than 75,000 individuals in 138 countries with data on global epidemics since 1970. It concentrated especially on those who lived through an outbreak of an epidemic during what the authors define «impressionable years,» that is, between 18 and 25 years of age. They found that having been so exposed did significantly diminish confidence in scientists, their trustworthiness and public service, and in the beneficial impact of their scientific work.
It must be noted that this diminishing level of trust in scientists was especially strong among people with a limited level of education, particularly in science, which is also a characteristic of many who now chafe and even rebel against Coronavirus preventive measures. It must be stressed that this diffidence does not extend to practicing medical professionals like doctors, nurses and traditional healers.
One author of the study, Dr. Aksoy (2020), acknowledges that there is a divide between what scientists do and the perception of it by the public at large. There is also previous research indicating that while credibiliity and expertise are key factors for scientists to obtain the trust of the public, if they are not able or do not make an effort to share their findings in a clear and concise manner and do not attract the confidence of the public, they will be ineffective and their message rejected since it will be perceived as elitist, unapproachable and divorced from reality. A major downfall for scientists is also to permit that politicians use them and their science to buttress their authority or, on the contrary, as a scapegoat (Aksoy, 2020; Borkowski, 2020).
On the other hand, one can also encounter those who believe the opposite, that the Coronavirus may reinforce public trust in science and scientists. For example, a recent survey documented that the percentage of Germans who stated that they had complete confidence in science and research climbed to 36% in April 2020, quadrupling the rate of 2019 (Bothwell, 2020).
Another crucial element, the poor match of priorities between scientists and policymakers, underlines the necessity for evidence-based information to act as a powerful foundation in support of their dialogue and decision making (Karam-Gemael et al., 2018).
In conclusion, for information to be credible, accepted, influential on the formulation of public policy and effective in addressing social, legal and health challenges it must be trusted and recognized as believable by the intended audience. It is not sufficient that it meets all the theoretical and methodological requirements of the respective scientific field; that it is evidence-based and published in a prestigious, refereed and abstracted journal. Especially in view of the ever-increasing quantity of research being conducted and of its easy accessibility via electronic means, for research to stand out, be noticed, received and recognized as true, impactful and deserving of acceptance and implementation, it must be presented in a manner that captures not only the mind but also the emotions and the imagination of the intended audience; responds in a practical and feasible manner to perceived needs and urgent priorities and is understandable and impactful at the practical level of resolving a problem.
People reject or doubt science because, as it is often presented, it forces them to live in two worlds: the intellectual self that can digest and regurgitate data and the emotional self that cannot fathom, cannot «take in» the gist, the significance of that information. Living in these two realities can be quite uncomfortable.
In other words, what researchers and scholars cannot forget is their own humanity, their own linkages with fellow humans, and the imperative of belonging rather than separating themselves from the rest as if they were high priests to be worshiped. The emotional component of scientific advances and discoveries responding to real human crises and challenges must be recognized and integrated with the more cerebral one in order to be successful, accepted and effectively translated into action. Intellectually understanding something is one thing; having its gist, its significance «hit one» and vividly impact one’s grasp of reality is quite something else.
Aksoy, Cevat Giray Barry Eichengreen Orkun Saka, «The Political Scar of Epidemics.» Working Paper 27401 http://www.nber.org/papers/w27401
Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, June 2020
Borkowski, Liz. 2020. «Roundup: Political Interference and Declining Trust in Public Health Agencies Addressing COVID-19.» Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network, November 16, 2020.
Eichengreen, Barry, Aksoy, Cevat Giray and Saka, Orkun, Revenge of the Experts: Will COVID-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science? November 30, 2020. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3613554 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3613554
Joey, Hadden, 2020. «Nearly a third of Americans believe in coronavirus conspiracy theories. Science explains why people tend to believe them more in times of crisis». Business Insider, July 23.
Karam-Gemael, Manoela, Rafael Loyola, Jerry Penha, and Thiago Izzo. .2018″Poor alignment of priorities between scientists and policymakers highlights the need for evidence-informed conservation in Brazil» Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation. Volume 16, Issue 3, July–September 2018, Pages 125-132; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pecon.2018.06.002
McCarthy, Tom. 2020. «US public increasingly skeptical of Covid-19 death toll, poll finds.» The Guardian, July 21, 2020
Mitchell, Amy, Mark Jurowitz, J. Baxter Oliphant and Elisa Shearer, 2020.
«Three Months In, Many Americans See Exaggeration, Conspiracy Theories and Partisanship in COVID-19 News.» Pew Research Center. June 19.2020.
Romano, Aja, 2020. «Study: Nearly a third of Americans believe a conspiracy theory about the origins of the coronavirus.»Vox, April 12, 2020