Patterns of content in public engagement with zoonotic and other emerging infectious diseases: continuities and discontinuities
Psychology University College London London, UK
Studies that I have conducted on public engagement with the zoonotic diseases Ebola and Avian flu indicate continuity between their social representation and that of the broader category of Emerging Infectious diseases (EID), including HIV/AIDS and MRSA. This social representation hinges around the following content: blame of particular entities for the disease; distancing of the disease from the self and in-group once the initial mass panic has died down; and stigmatisation of those who have contracted it or who are thought to have intensified its spread.
This paper explores this patterning to understand the processes of public engagement with mass disease. Two types of blame can be elicited by such diseases: upwards (e.g. of governments and other institutions) and downwards (e.g. of marginalised groups). Both types of blame can co-exist in relation to a disease, such as the spread of HIV being linked, initially, not only to gay and African identities but to the lack of government regulation and screening of donated blood.
Blame of either kind tends to be accompanied by a "not me, not my group" response in the public responding to the particular disease. Thus a key aspect of the response to zoonotic and other EID serves an identity protective function. The impetus towards identity protection cuts across a surprising number of the EID and is found in unlikely publics (e.g. those one might expect to feel vulnerable to the particular disease).
While the identities of those representing an EID in this way are protected, stigmatisation results from these representations. The nature of the stigma depends on whether the blame is directed upwards or downwards. Accompanying the former type of blame is impaired trust in the authorities and institutions seen to be associated with the disease?s escalation whereas spoiled identity, and sometimes political action to challenge this, follows from downwards blame.
Beyond these continuities in the social representation of infectious diseases, the paper also discusses the potential for discontinuity between those of zoonotic origin and the others. While experts label a subset of the EID as zoonotic, awareness of the animal-human link may not permeate public thinking.