The experiences made in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two
years have made clear that we not only have to better prepare our national and
international medical, health-organisational and political response and “tool-kit”
for such incidents. On a secondary look, we also have to acknowledge that crises
like this have a massive impact on the psychology and the mind-set of human beings.
The effects of this are sometimes no less severe than the pandemic itself,
having the potential to cost lives by the thousands. This analysis examines the
(imperfect) psychological human response to disaster and the possible lessons to
be learned by political actors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a firm grip on our daily lives and has preoccupied politics
ever since its first appearance on the world stage in early 2020. We have had some – even
international – experiences in handling comparable epidemics in recent history, with previous
worldwide outbreaks of diseases like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. Nevertheless, the
world was caught largely unprepared for this pandemic in terms of medical, health-organisational
and political responses on the respective national and the international levels.
These lessons had to be and were, by and large, learned rather quickly. We had to and did
learn how to “change tires” while the car had to be kept on track at the same time. More
difficult to answer, and certainly more unexpected, was the question of how to deal with
the human mind and psychology responding to the vagaries of the crisis. The inexplicability
of certain phenomena and conflicting scientific views created levels of uncertainty that
were hard to process for the human brain. People did not know what to believe and where
to turn to to get the right answers in order to carry on with their lives. In addition to these
uncertainties, restrictions on personal freedoms had to be implemented in order to successfully
battle the pandemic. In the long run, these restrictions only stood a chance to be
accepted if they proved to be successful and proportionate with regard to the restricted
individual rights. This turned out to be a big and under-estimated problem, especially in
free and liberal societies, where the public – rightly so – was demanding a stringent political
accountability for the actions taken. And so, inevitably, as a seemingly easy resort for
a troubled mind, some individuals and groups turned to violence and conspiracy theories
in order to make sense of what was happening. In our globalized digital world, conspiracy
theory can be spread quickly and effectively, so that we soon had to deal with growing
international, highly irrational movements, opening up a sort of “second front” in dealing
with the pandemic. For this paper, our author takes a deep and comprehensive look at the
human psyche and certain evolutionary patterns that are to be observed when the human
mind struggles to find explanations. We hope that this will leave the interested reader with
a better understanding of “crisis psychology” and lead to more effective problem-solving
mechanisms for politicians and other practitioners in the related fields. As the turning to
violence and an affinity to conspiracy theory are not limited to the Covid-19 crisis, with the
current, terrible events of war in the centre of Europe sadly being accompanied by them
as well, the take-aways from reading this analysis may apply more generally to a variety
of topics.

Bertil Wenger

Director of the Regional office of the KAS for Australia


Bertil Wenger is director of the regional office of the KAS for Australia, New Zealand and the Southern Pacific as of 1 September 2021. He is a lawyer by profession with a more than 20-year experience in policy consulting in the German Bundestag, public affairs companies and the CDU Headquarters in Berlin, where he was director of international relations from 2011-2021. His fields of experience include international relations and party developments, as well as foreign and security policy. He is married with two children.