The Emotional Contagion: Feelings, Emotions, and the Pandemic. An interview with Tiffany Watt Smith

On 15th May 2020, Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary Paolo Gervasi interviewed Tiffany Watt Smith about the emotions surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic for the Italian journal Che Fare. It can be read here in Italian,, and the original English version is below.

If until a few months ago we thought we were living in an era of high emotional intensity, in a “nervous state”, according to the title of William Davies’ recent book, the explosion of the pandemic has literally thrown us into an ocean of emotions. The emotion that seems to prevail, understandably, is fear. But what kind of emotion is fear? What history does it have, what physiological and psychological reactions does it associate with?

It’s true that there is a lot of fear about. Though I also hear people report that their initial intense anxiety during lockdown has been replaced by a sense of calm.
We talk of fear as if it’s a single basic response to an external trigger, but perhaps it is useful to distinguish between different varieties or textures of fear. There is the heart thumping fear which makes you want to run away, when you sense some immediate danger. But that is different from a feeling like terror which the Italian 19th century physician Angelo Mosso described as immobilizing people: ‘even the most intrepid men do not think of flight; it seems as though the nerves of defence were severed and they were left to their fate’. There is the panic which can cause stampedes or panic buying. And then there is anxiety, linked to our collective existential uncertainty, which leaves one feeling constricted and breathless – as I imagine many people have experienced while reading about the symptoms of Covid!
Actually, the kind of fear I vividly remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when we in the UK saw what was happening in China and then in Italy, was dread – a feeling of some encroaching danger about which I could do nothing at all. I remembered an account I had read by a 14th century Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin, about seeing the plague approaching from town to town, as if a coil of smoke snaking across the land, a ‘rootless phantom’. He describes being frightened but also helpless. I also remembered something I had read years ago in Giovanni Boccaccio’s accounts of the plague in 14th century Florence – not about the panic buying, or self-isolation, but about people who succumbed to a kind of listlessness or apathy in the face of this fear, abandoning their crops, gambling their fortunes away, as if nothing could matter anymore.

I just had to break off to join the clap for carers – which of course reminds me that, as you say, fear is only one of the many strong emotions of this time.

An etching of the 1348 plague ravaging Florence, inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron.  The bubonic plague – also known as the Black Death – is estimated to have wiped out 60 – 80% of Florence’s population between 1348 and 1351. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

What does an emotional regime dominated by fear imply from a social and political point of view? In what condition does it put citizens and how does it change relations between rulers and the ruled?

We were already living in a society dominated by fear – in the UK at least – ours is a pretty ‘fear-averse’ society, our public spaces covered in security cameras, warnings to be vigilant playing on public transport, signs to remind you that here is a step or there the ground could be wet. The sociologist Frank Furedi talks of ‘fear entrepreneurs’ who capitalize on our fears to sell us things, but so much of advertising and many clickbait articles in newspapers work like this. Since becoming a parent 6 years ago, I have felt more than ever bombarded with the terrible things that might happen to my children due to my conduct/the food I give them/my home/our neighbourhood. Is it as bad in Italy? Or Barcelona? The usual argument is that these discourses of fear make a population more docile and easily manipulated, and legitimize war and other extreme defensive responses such as border control. This was certainly discussed in relation to Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11: ‘it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear’, he said, and so mobilized the spectre of fear in his ‘war on terror’ – the ultimate fear entrepreneur.
But we are perhaps in a more peculiar situation now. On the one hand, fear of the pandemic has caused us quickly to relinquish all kinds of rights, and gives the police unprecedented powers. But of course, it can go the other way too. Right now, in the UK, the government is keen to ‘reverse-engineer the fear’ – one civil servant made the claim recently that the UK govt communications team has been too good at scaring us over Covid, and now no one wants to go back to work or school. The truth is more that the government have lost a lot of people’s trust – partly due to terrible and confusing communications – and so people are more likely to listen to their own possibly rational fears rather than be persuaded by the government.

What other emotions associated with the pandemic have you seen emerge? How do you interpret, for example, a phenomenon that struck me a lot, namely the coming out of a kind of competition to appear peaceful, relaxed, even happy within the quarantine, represented by many as an opportunity to reconnect with themselves and with their inner life?

I was just having a socially distanced chat with my neighbor on the street, and she said exactly this – that she feels much calmer, she appreciates the time to be more interior, away from the rush of ordinary life. Of course, this sense of peace is really about privilege. The privilege to feel relaxed because you do not have money worries, you have enough space to practice social distancing, you are not ill or grieving. The pandemic has exacerbated existing social divisions. I have my shopping delivered so I do not have to go to the shop, my feeling of peace and security depends on another making themselves vulnerable.
Perhaps this is peculiarly British, but the emotion I feel a lot of personally right now is awkwardness – awkwardness is an interesting feeling which Adam Kotsko has written about. He describes it as the experience of being caught in a situation where you don’t quite know the rules, or where two different sets of rules might be in conflict. Will I insult the postman if I don’t want to take the letters directly from his hand? Is it wrong to allow my kid to accept a gift of a flower from another child she knows when we bump into that family on the street during our daily exercise? Should I wear a mask? ‘How should we behave?’ is a question which I think preoccupies a lot of people at the moment here.
I see a lot of shame – in the UK there has been a lot of excitement about shaming people who flouted social distancing rules, for instance there was a photograph of a woman who put a sign in her window telling everyone her upstairs neighbour had been having friends to visit. People have been calling the police for the smallest infractions – and I certainly feel ashamed if I inadvertently break the rules. People have talked a lot about loneliness, particularly people who are living alone, or grandparents missing the touch of their grandchildren.
But most of all I see moments of solidarity and kindness between neighbours – I personally have benefited from that as my family was in quarantine for 7 weeks due to illness (we are all recovered now) – and a lot of gratitude for the neighbours and friends I have and optimism about beginning to re-connect with those people even in very socially distanced ways.

Signs attached to the railings of a park in East London offering messages of appreciation and encouragement to NHS workers. The covid-19 pandemic, and lockdown imposed by the UK government, has prompted a vast – and very vocal – outpouring of support for the NHS, with many households decorating their windows with brightly coloured messages of gratitude and solidarity, and widespread participation in the #clapforourcarers campaign.

What role have emotions played and continue to play in the political choices made to manage the crisis? Have you noticed significant differences in the emotional management practiced by different national communities in different parts of the world?

I’m not sure about emotional management in different parts of the world. Certainly here we are only just catching up to the idea that the experience of Covid may create serious mental health issues including PTSD, but as yet there has been no serious national or unified attempt to practice any emotional management.
Certainly, one can see differences in the emotional style practiced by leaders. Jacinda Ardern, for instance, is perceived as being more empathic, her rhetoric emphasizing caring for those who were vulnerable, and acting as a family. Contrast that with the rhetoric of Boris Johnson in the UK who has spoken about a ‘fight against coronovirus’ and about war, an approach which has been underlined by the British monarch whose speech to the nation used tropes from the Second World War (including the lyrics of a Vera Lynn song ‘we’ll meet again’). The British government has fallen back on tropes of ‘The British Spirit’, and The Blitz, enlisting national pride and nostalgia and aggression, without recognizing the ways this rhetoric, shot through with colonial sentiment, excludes or alienates so many people in the country, especially those who appear to be most vulnerable to COVID.


What role do the media play – both traditional and social media – in building the main emotional states associated with the pandemic? According to what prevailing strategies and rhetorical devices have they acted?

I had to avoid media at certain point. I logged off Twitter, and try to limit my consumption of rolling news, since this seems to exacerbate the anxiety. It seems obvious that the media is playing a very powerful role, both in disseminating government communications and, hopefully, holding the government to account (in emotional terms, however, this can feel even more anxiety-provoking).

 Emotions are traditionally associated with the presence, the closeness of bodies, the psycho-physical reactivity that is triggered in direct confrontation with contexts and external agents. How does social distancing modify the experience and the elaboration of emotions?

The new distance is interesting. Of course it creates all kinds of peculiar emotional glitches, like the awkwardness I just spoke about, or else, indignation, for instance when a jogger zooms past your ear. At the beginning of the lockdown, there were people who would scowl at you when you moved out of their path, as if you were accusing them of being contagious. At the beginning people didn’t really get social distancing. But I started going out again last week after 7 weeks inside, and the difference is phenomenal –people have learnt, habits are changing, no one hesitates to move or scowls when you move.

What we are going through is a very rapid change of physical habit. It’s not the first time that physical relationships to one another have changed, though usually it’s not so dramatic. I am currently doing some research on friendship, and have been looking at early Twentieth century girls’ boarding school fiction in Britain. In books published in the 1900s, the girls have very romantic attachments to one another – they kiss and hold hands, cuddle and share beds – by the time Enid Blyton published Mallory Towers (a schoolgirl series) in the 1950s, this entire culture of physical affection between young girls had disappeared. In her books, the characters sometimes link arms or hug when they win at sports, but that is all. The change in this culture happened gradually. It was partly because of fears around lesbianism which only really emerged as a distinct idea in sexology in the early twentieth century. Headteachers banned girls from kissing or holding hands – in one school they were even not allowed to wash each other’s hair (seen as particularly erotic/intimate!). But there were other reasons that girls were encouraged to show less physical affection. Between the wars, people learnt to fear the mob and contagious emotions – and saw girls as particularly susceptible to these. There was also a lot of worry about epidemics of illnesses such as scabies, and holding hands was regarded as unhygienic and was discouraged among women who were working in factories. My phd student David Saunders has uncovered this in his research on contagious disease in Britain in the Second World War, and found evidence of a medical officer called G.P.B. Whitwell, who feared the invasive presence of young women in factories believing them to be carriers of scabies – “these young girls… probably contract their disease through their affectionate habit of walking around with their arms round one another’s necks’ he wrote. We can assume the ‘affectionate habit’ was discouraged.  

Physical habits do change, and what we think of as natural is often learnt. I have heard some people on twitter hoping that this will spell the end of social kissing in Britain. For Italians it is easy, you know how to greet people by kissing them. For British people it is very awkward and we often get it wrong!

 From the political point of view, there is a sort of anomaly in the emotional structure of the pandemic that intrigues me: the populist movements in Europe and the world, which base their search for consensus on the manipulation of strong, violent emotions, at a time like this, dominated by very intense emotions, almost seem to be overwhelmed, seem unarmed and incapable of taking advantage of the situation, even ridiculous. Or they end up showing their fragile side, which is usually concealed, as in the case of Boris Johnson. People, although emotionally shaken, seem to prefer political responses marked by rationality, firmness, emotional attenuation. Do you confirm this impression and, if so, how do you explain this phenomenon?  

This is a very interesting observation. To me it is so astonishing that there could be protests in America against the lockdown, and they are happening here in the UK too. I agree that they seem ridiculous – a motley collection of anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists. But I also have learnt to fear my own limited perspective. There is Trump, who was encouraging the protestors and sowing mistruths with his China-baiting. What seems ridiculous and implausible to me is terrifyingly real too.

One of the most surprising consequences of the lockdown, especially at the beginning, was the triggering of a great sense of solidarity, a strengthening of the sense of community and the need to stand together. As the quarantine progressed, however, a more unpleasant feeling began to emerge, the people’s tendency to blame each other, to identify and denounce the “transgressor” of the rules, in order to shift the responsibility for the continuing emergency onto the individual. How do you interpret the coexistence and interaction between these two opposing emotional states? 

It makes sense that fear and the need to protect ourselves has resulted in stronger hostility to perceived transgressors, and a desire to shame them. In many ways, this antagonism was deliberately stoked by our government in the UK, who persistently have been cagey or vague about the details of rules and allowed people to ‘use their judgement’– very clearly shifting responsibility and placing it on the individual, leaving things more open to interpretation, and people more touchy about the rules.
I see great solidarity around me – neighbours helping each other out buying shopping, people organizing food banks for local people in need.
However, I get the impression that there was also a rush to blame each other in the UK right from the start. For instance, a woman was shamed in the supermarket for buying so much food – people assumed she was panic buying, but actually she had a large family and is a single parent so it was hard for her to get to the shops (and also the government had just told us to prepare for possible 2 week quarantines). On our local whatsapp and facebook groups, huge battles have broken out between gardeners who want to have bonfires and other residents who say bonfires will compromise people’s respiratory systems. My husband was telling me today that on Twitter, a friend of his who is a single parent tweeted a joke that she couldn’t wait for the schools to re-open – and received so much abuse she had to take the tweet down. I’m not immune from this either – I can understand teenagers cooped up in flats having parties in parks, but I do find I have lost a great deal of respect for friends who have perfectly large houses with gardens in London, but have left to go to their second homes in the countryside.

What kind of emotional discourse do you think will prevail afterwards? Will fear still dominate our lives for a long time? What emotional approaches do you think could help the exit from the crisis? 

Honestly, I’m sure like everyone, I find it really hard to make sense of where we are at the moment. It’s like being in a storm and not being able to see the horizon where the rain stops. I imagine, if the virus continues to be a significant part of our lives, we will learn to manage the risk, and those risks will be experienced in different ways for different people. Those of us – I include myself – who have had the privilege of being in strict lockdown will have to adjust to going back into the world.
I suppose what I hope beyond hope is that a level-headed discourse of kindness will prevail – a discourse which privileges neighbourliness, care, mutuality and respect for others, protecting those more vulnerable than us, environmental responsibility and critically, inter-species responsibility. Certainly, I believe it’s only those things which will help us make sense of our future together.