by Ed West
Tuesday, 12
May 2020

Who are the corona tribes?

Tomas Pueyo (centre), an entrepreneur and epidemiology professor John Edmunds (L) debate the merits of herd immunity in March. Credit: C4

A friend tweeted a clip from a debate back in March about what was the best way to approach coronavirus.

The responses underneath are the really interesting thing. Back then, most of the FBPE types responding were entirely behind the expert scientist arguing for herd immunity, and hostile to the Silicon Valley tech guy calling for lockdown and suppression.

Now, most people of that persuasion are furiously condemning the government for, at best, gross incompetence, and at worst mass murder; their policy is viewed as being specifically designed at sacrificing the poor so that the economy can get moving.

That’s a very crude simplification, and there will be loads of people who contradict the overall trend, but even as coronavirus has turned our world upside down normal political tribalism and polarisation has sort of returned. Overall, lockdown sceptics tend to come from the Right, and to be pro-Brexit; lockdown pessimists are from the Left and the more vociferous are very Remainy.

I’m not sure what word there is for them. Nelson Jones suggests ‘Exiteers’ and ‘Remain Insiders’. But these divisions must to some extent be less about personality traits being associated with political beliefs, and more down to Kevin Phillips’s explanation that “understanding politics is all about understanding who hates whom”.

Meanwhile a number of American Republicans have taken their cue from the tribal leader with behaviour so reckless and nonsensical it’s reminiscent of the Xhosa cattle-killing movement.

In contrast, a few Right-wing weirdos were very pessimistic about coronavirus from the start because they view the world as an inherently dangerous place, are conscious of tail risks (yes, it’s Taleb’s world now) and are hostile to, or sceptical of, globalisation.

That’s my category certainly, and I was for introducing quarantine back in February half-term when the disaster in Italy first emerged. But then I am pro-borders, and find the idea that “borders can’t stop people” to be so obviously untrue — borders can’t stop people if the people in charge find them unseemly, but states far less sophisticated than ours manage them if the will is there. But on a fundamental level I’m following my political tribal leaders; I have so little understanding of how diseases work, and how this is going to pan out, that I just have to follow the people I trust — and I tend to trust weirdos.

During times of crisis our atavistic brains come to the fore and so our instinctive opinions harden, but so does tribalism, which partly explains why we have the Remain and Brexit categories arguing over what is acceptable danger, and the conservatives are less risk averse.

The only comparable situation where the Right is more relaxed about danger is climate change, and quite a few of the most optimistic coronavirus people seem to be climate change sceptics. Matt Ridley thinks we may be close to herd immunity already, and that Covid might disappear soon. He’s a very intelligent man and I would love for him to be right, just as I would love him to be right about global warming, but he’s a cheery Whig and I can’t share his optimism.


  • May 16, 2020
    The problem is neither tribe gets it. One is obsessed by how high the death rate is, the other looks at how small it is in the working age population and claims the young are being penalised to protect the old and the cure is worse than the disease. The big issue is we face 2 societal level risks... Read more

  • May 16, 2020
    Well, personally, I tend to lean more towards the political left, I am an ardent remainer, a multilateralist and I strongly believe that global warmth poses an existential threat to our planet. Like Mr Tegnell (and Mr Giesecke), I am sort of pessimist and I fear that no vaccine will be available... Read more

  • May 16, 2020
    We are now continuing the Leave and Remain battle by other means. All the Remainer newspapers and TV channels are enthusiastically attacking the government at every opportunity; their argument is that we must extend the lockdown indefinitely as any other policy would put lives at risk. They have... Read more

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