Why People Are Wishing Coronavirus On Horrible Personalities


Apr 7, 2020


Image Credit: Barcroft Media

Last night, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was diagnosed with coronavirus 10 days ago, was moved to intensive care; his doctors say he is “extremely sick” and will likely need a ventilator soon. In the past few weeks, news of a person on their deathbed, common as it has become, has evoked feelings of grief as people grapple with the scale of the Covid19 pandemic. Not with Johnson. People are reacting to his worsening health with laughter — an American journalist came under fire for saying Johnson’s hospitalization is funny; with sarcasm — many are alleging Johnson got what was coming to him since he refused to stop shaking hands with people; with jubilation — some are saying the world would be better off without him.

The coronavirus pandemic may have cast a pall over the spirit of the world population, and a rising number of cases and deaths have most definitely added to the gloom. But there are a number of chosen personalities in the world — U.S. President Donald Trump, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Big Cat Rescue’s Carole Baskin — for whom people would not grieve, but rather dance on their grave. This malicious instinct, known as schadenfreude, or the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune, research says is based on the feelings of aggression, rivalry and justice.

“Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude,” according to Shensheng Wang, a psychologist at Emory University and first author of a review paper dissecting schadenfreude published in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. “Dehumanization is the process of perceiving a person or social group as lacking the attributes that define what it means to be human,” the paper states.

The reason Johnson could be at the receiving end of schadenfreude is perhaps the fact he said Muslim women in burqas look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers,” or that he referred to people living in the continent of Africa as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles,” or that he puts profit over human rights time and again. These… qualities, let’s say, might enable people to perceive him as less than human, therefore finding it easier to derive pleasure or mirth from his misfortunes. When it comes to Trump, the schadenfreude goes one step further — it’s not that people are gloating over him getting sick; they’re actively wishing coronavirus upon him and his family.

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The schadenfreude directed at bigoted world leaders, such as Johnson, Trump, or even India’s own Home Minister Amit Shah, falls under one of three theories psychologists have devised to explain the phenomenon — the deservingness theory. It links “schadenfreude to a concern for social justice and the feeling that someone dealt a misfortune received what was coming to them,” the review paper states.

Another explanation relies on the envy theory, which “focuses on a concern for self-evaluation, and a lessening of painful feelings when someone perceived as enviable gets knocked down a peg,” the paper states. A popular hashtag trending amidst the coronavirus pandemic — #eattherich — exemplifies the psychology of the masses that enables them to derive pleasure from celebrities getting diagnosed with Covid19, or corporations failing to stay afloat in the wake of the economic recession caused by the Covid19 pandemic. The global disease outbreak has laid bare the privilege of celebrities self-isolating in their mansions while migrant laborers walk hundreds of kilometers to reach home, companies that exploit their labor force to keep churning out profits, and the wealthy delivering empty platitudes while medical institutions run out of resources. A little schadenfreude then — reveling in the fall of celebrity culture, gloating at big banks struggling to survive, calling for billionaire tears — is perhaps a valid coping mechanism in times of strife.

Not everyone, however, thinks so. For some, the pervasiveness and threat of Covid19 has wiped out all malice — for example, some Britons opposed to Johnson’s politics are stressing they’re still wishing for their Prime Minister to get better, and scolding those expressing their schadenfreude on social media for being insensitive. “Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate,” according to psychology professor and co-author of the paper, Philippe Rochat. “It’s kind of a warm-cold experience that is associated with a sense of guilt. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else.”

And so the debate around schadenfreude rages; is it simply malicious or could the motivations be virtuous? If it’s punching up, then what could really be the harm? Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, these questions take on a deeper significance — as social commentators debate whether the Covid19 pandemic is the great equalizer or social leveler, our immediate, gleeful reactions perhaps hold the answer.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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