Belief Systems around behavior during Covid Times- By Kendall Guischard, Texas, USA

While most Americans were concerned with their immediate households during the first half of the pandemic, as comfort levels rise again, American households are starting to be more aware of how others quarantine. While the majority of my interviews spoke with understanding and support of the collective quarantine hardships, here are judgement calls against neighbors. One of my informants Valerie and her husband Jefferson who live in Lynchburg, Virginia talk about taking walks to get some fresh air, and shake their heads at their neighbors who are not crossing the street to maintain physical distancing. I interviewed a father Jimmy from New York who described that people’s dark sides are coming out. He said “You can cross the road, but at least smile or say hi!”

Jimmy is focusing on his expectation of manners, or rather his habitus, which is his culturally and socially engrained pattern of thought and behavior. In his mind, even though you are physically distancing, you should still be able to maintain your manners. Each home has its own subculture, and they seemed to be strengthened by being at home more often during this pandemic. “Ethnocentrism occurs when individuals or groups apply their own cultural values to the behaviors and beliefs of people raised in other cultures” Pierre Bourdieu claimed that by observing habitus, you can begin to find clues about someone’s economic class, region they are from, their upbringing, and even some hobbies they enjoy. Bourdieu might observe that Jimmy’s focus on proper manners puts him in a high economic class or participates in an environment where social graces are very important.

These opinions are manifestations of small ways that people are starting to impute judgement on how others exercise shelter-at-home practices. An extreme example comes from Kya who was invited to a child’s 1st birthday party this week. She received a Facebook invite 2 weeks ago and hesitated to reply with a maybe, hoping that she might actually feel safe enough to go. The child’s mother wrote on the event: “Hey everyone just checking in! With everything slowly starting to open we are still planning on having Ben’s birthday party. If you don’t feel comfortable coming we totally understand, but if you could let me know on here within the next week or 2 so I can plan for food and stuff! “As the date approached, Kya realized that it was not the family’s best interest to attend the party.

“I know everyone needs to have a balance to get back to normal, but I’m just not there yet,” Kya told me. She sat on the couch and crossed her arms. I asked her if she wanted to go.

“It’s not that I want to go, it’s just that I feel pressured to go out when people are trying to do normal things again. It’s too early. A birthday party indoors is an easy way to catch the virus if someone [is infected] with it.”

With every households staying in place, familiar routines are replaced with temporary new lifestyles. There are inevitable differences in the ways people give meaning to quarantine rules. Due to habitus, unique subcultures in each home, some informants experience a type of mini-ethnocentrism, hoping that others would participate in quarantine exactly the way that they do.

As we analyze these behaviors, what comes to surface is that these behaviors are held up by belief systems. Belief systems are a concept of reality. All cultures have belief systems; belief systems are rational to those who subscribe to them; belief systems have purpose. Because the coronavirus is an invisible threat – it is even asymptomatic in some carriers – this pandemic itself is an invisible belief system in itself. The virus is believed to be respiratory and spread through the air, so physical contact has changed. Physical distancing is a belief system, and those who do not subscribe to it are protesting and gathering in numbers, rejecting the idea of a vaccine, mask, or even the truth of the virus.

Mask-wearing and/or maintaining physical distance is part of a belief system. In one Facebook Post, Katy shows a photo of protestors and writes, "This is the bit in the disaster movie where people ignore the experts' advice." This meme portrays the protestors as the ill-fated characters in a disaster movie. It fails to have an emic (insider's) view of the situation; the caption is not a value-free observation. The writer assumes an authoritative position of influence over the culture. The writer does this by assuming to have authority and knowledge over what will happen to the protestors. A value-free caption might say: Protestors gather in Hyde Park to advocate for their rights. “A question from an emic perspective seeks a kind of analytical empathy, an inference about the character and content of another person's experience“ (Module 2.10). An emic perspective might ask: What are some concerns the protestors have? Do they subscribe in the mask? What are their belief systems? Why does the sign say “I am a free man? I am not a number”? We see the British flag and the hashtag for Hyde Park. “Etic perspectives represent the attitudes, perceptions, and categories of the researcher” (Module 2.10). Anthropologists must be careful when giving meaning to other cultures as they may unknowingly impart an ethnocentric view.

Valerie and her husband Jefferson express that they “didn’t stockpile” on things like toilet paper, but that they described the process of looking for toilet paper for 2 days before they found some again. Stockpiling toilet paper might symbolize a deeper experience for this Virginia couple. They might describe stockpiling as unnecessary, fearful, or useless. “We couldn’t even find vanilla extract in any stores. I found one for $20 at a fancy Kroger [grocery store] in town.” Grocery carts and pantries are being filled with new strategies in mind. Quantities of items are being monitored. Limits are being place on the number of milk cartoons one can buy. Studying how different households shelter-in-place demonstrates how profoundly dynamic culture is. Another example of a belief system related to Covid is the face mask. “Beliefs help manage anxiety and control the unknown” (Module 3.5). For one of the families that I interviewed, Maxine and Albert, Albert is a doctor who is working in the Emergency Room. He and his wife belief in the mask and a face shield. He ordered heavily filtered mask online to upgrade his hospital grade mask.

Albert says that the Emergency Room was very busy and it was full of emotion. On some days you could you feel the doom in the air, but he takes mental checks to “breathe again.” (See Example 1 - Sensorial Clip Photos) He also ordered a face shield and some overalls. In our chat, Albert describes the mask. “I have my Bane mask [a Batman reference] ready for emergency if they run out of n95s. And also, will get my Tyvek full body jumpsuit in the mail soon, if they ever run out of gowns.” He and his family subscribe to the belief system that protective gear and equipment are essential to staying healthy in this pandemic. I asked him how he feels wearing the mask.

Albert said, “I take whatever precaution I can to keep myself safe, for my family’s sake. Things have been crazy with people’s fears manifesting, but keeping my faith and composure are the most important things. I get home and take off all my gear in the garage and throw it in the laundry. The mask is not so bad. I can’t even smell farts.”

He describes his uniform, protective gear (not just the mask), and the routine he has to keep his family safe. He also describes staying positive, and even makes a joke! Albert prays with his wife every night, and in that routine is a simple ritual. A ritual is stylized behavior that is done to achieve a specific goal, even though there is no empirical connection between the ritual and the outcome. “Most rituals grow out of a perceived relationship between the behavior and a positive outcome” (Module 3.7). For this family, masks are a belief system that gives comfort and allows them to focus on something tangible that they can control.