Politicians don't understand: everything is contagious. Credit: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

July 19, 2021   6 mins

My great-grandparents apparently died on the same day as each other. This is not especially unusual in the elderly, or at least it is not rare for widows or widowers to die within days or weeks of being bereaved. There’s even a name for it — “the widowhood effect”.

There are various reasons, not least that spouses physically look after each other and once alone, a widow or widower might not care much any more. But there is also the psychological impact of grief, the broken heart and the feeling of not wanting to go on. Death is, in this sense, contagious — but, then, almost everything is. Perhaps after a tortuous year and a half in which everyone has learned about infection and “R values”, we should start to appreciate this more.

Today we exit lockdown after 16 difficult and strange months, a period that began and ended with two of the most watched television programmes in British history: the Prime Minister’s television broadcast to the nation, and the 2020 European Championship final.

In between those two events, the British public were forcibly locked into their homes, pubs were closed, casual sex was made illegal and parties were banned — it was the most popular policy in living memory, and a huge swathe of the population seemed to actually enjoy it. Indeed, a large section of the public wants lockdown to last forever, with almost one in five favouring a permanent 10pm curfew.

What some people liked about lockdown was the feeling that everyone was was in it together, all in the same boat: no one had a social life, everyone was isolated and scared, and that felt somehow more communal. And while the fetishisation of the NHS can feel strange, the Clap for Carers and the weird cult of Captain Tom was the closest thing we’ve had to common rituals for a long time — and people need common rituals.

The British obsession with the Second World War is often misinterpreted as being about triumph, but it’s actually related to the sense of common purpose people felt, especially during the Blitz; humans are much happier when they’re part of something, which is why suicide rates fall during periods of intense group feeling, a trend first noted by Durkheim.

When the virus first hit, Boris Johnson was slow and reluctant to act because he is, by nature, a classical liberal, a philosophy that holds individual liberty as the central good. It is deeply inadequate in such a crisis, because we have no individual choice during an epidemic — our risk of getting sick depends not just on our behaviour, but on the behaviour of those around us.

That is partly why the poor suffered higher death rates (that feeling that we were all in it together during lockdown was largely false). It was not only that most manual workers continued to go into sometimes dangerous workplaces, or that the poor have higher risk of ill-health and live in denser areas — it’s also because the people in their social networks were more likely to be infected to start with.

Yet the same is true of everything. Almost every aspect of life depends on contagion in some way, fixing the odds against those in the wrong networks. We are ultra-sociable as a species, unusually so for mammals, to the extent that E.O. Wilson even described humans as “eusocial apes”. Compared with our relatives, we like to live in very large groups, socialise with strangers, and imitate them. It is for that reason that plenty found lockdown unbearable.

Because humans live in such large groups, and are also so unusually influenced by culture as well as genes, it’s not just viruses that are contagious within human populations, but ideas and behaviour. One of the first recognised “contagions” was suicide, a problem called the Werther effect, after the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther published in 1774. A story of unrequited love, the book was blamed for a string of suicides, with copies found beside the body in some cases.

In the Fifties it was first noticed that, whenever a prominent celebrity suicide was reported, there followed a spike in road fatalities. It turned out, as insurers soon cottoned onto, that a great deal of car accidents are disguised suicides. Copycat suicide has been found repeatedly in various studies across countries, the most prominent recent British case being the Bridgend epidemic. Multiple studies show that people are more likely to commit suicide after a friend or acquaintance does, mostly using the same methods. It is why the media has very strict rules about reporting suicides, probably the only rule that British newspapers have assiduously stuck to down the years.

Suicide is not unique, though. Marriage is contagious, as is non-marital cohabitation, divorce and pregnancy. If a woman becomes pregnant, the likelihood of her friends becoming pregnant rises over the next two years.

Yet the contagion effect is largely ignored in political debates. One of the big issues of the Nineties and Noughties was whether out-of-wedlock births and fatherlessness had a negative impact on life chances, and what the state’s role was in this trend.

It’s hard to disentangle cause and effect, nature and nurture, but it now appears that what affects a child’s life outcomes is not just whether he has a father at home, it’s whether the other kids in the neighbourhood have a father at home. One US study found that “Black father presence at the neighborhood level strongly predicts black boys’ outcomes irrespective of whether their own father is present or not”; another that “Children of single parents have higher rates of upward mobility if they grow up in a neighbourhood with fewer single parent households”.

Boys from more comfortable backgrounds, whose own fathers were absent, were much more likely to have other male role models in their social network, where family break-up had not reached epidemic levels. It takes a village, as the saying goes, but you need men in the village.

The debate has largely disappeared with the sharp decline in teen pregnancies across a number of countries, and while much of this is down to greater contraception uptake, another is that girls are just much less likely to get pregnant if none of their friends do. The huge increase in teen pregnancies in the late 20th century was in part a contagion, and it’s burned out.

Similarly, corruption, according to a meta-analysis of 137 experiments into unethical behaviour, is contagious, as are bad ethics. When a prominent steroid user joined baseball team, his teammates started cheating too. Drug taking, the biggest scourge in American life, is certainly contagious, and gun violence maybe, although people disagree about how much.

Likewise, happiness is contagious, as is sadness, so that “each person in your network who became happy increases your chance of becoming happy by 9%, an unhappy person drops it by 7%.” One of the reasons social media is depressing is because it’s just full of unhappy people writing about how miserable they are.

During the height of last June’s protests, leading health experts in America were justifying support for Black Lives Matters rallies by saying that racism was actually a deadly contagion, so this was actually a health matter. Obviously, it’s more sophisticated sounding than saying “I’m an abject moral coward and don’t want to go against the prevailing ideology, however obviously stupid it is”, but it is true that ideas have certain epidemiological traits.

That is, political beliefs are contagious, which is why students often adopt their roommate’s ideology.  University attendance makes people more Left-wing, not because students are being indoctrinated by academics, but because they’re copying their peers, just as they would if their peers smoked, drank or declared themselves non-binary.

Better technology means that ideas can spread through human populations more rapidly, so that the arrival of the iPhone caused the Great Awokening just as printing led to the Reformation. If the last year has often been odd, it’s partly because we’ve been both cut off from our regular networks, and at the same time subjected to the most contagious medium of viral spread.

The internet, as at least one paper has suggested, is to our minds what the transition to cities was to our bodies. When people moved to the first urban settlement, novel diseases like measles, TB and later plague were able to spread rapidly among these eusocial apes; the same is arguably true with ideas and lifestyles in the 21st century, with technology imposed on a species uniquely vulnerable to contagion and imitation.

Many people have no more resistance to the insanity spreading out of US academia than our ancestors had to viruses carried by cattle or pigs. Humans are viral creatures, and if the Covid era has taught us anything, it’s that our life outcomes really depend on those closest to us and that everything, from the misery of illness to the mind-melting memes of June 2020, is contagious.

Humankind’s eusocial nature was almost perfectly summed up 400 years ago by another victim of infectious disease; John Donne, reflecting on life and death after a bout of typhus, afterwards wrote the immortal words that still bear true today: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.”

So happy “freedom day”, but remember: we are not as free as we suppose.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable