COVID-19 hurts the people closest to you: How group identities affect disease transmission

They say you only hurt the ones you love. In the age of COVID-19, this adage has, almost ironically, attained a new shade of truth. One-on-one contact is definitely a risk factor—but so is what social scientists call “group identities.”

Even in our highly individualistic society, it’s well-documented that people sort themselves into groups based on their individual identities, attitudes, values, and worldviews. These so-called “in-groups” might be as formal as a church congregation, or as ill-defined—but no less cohesive—as friends who meet each week to play video games. And these group identities have profound impacts on our behaviors and psychology.

In the context of the current health crisis, the most important effects of group identity involve how we perceive risk. We feel safer when we’re surrounded by members of our in-groups. As a result, we tend to drift into riskier behaviors when engaging within or acting collectively with our in-group.

This dynamic can, in part, be attributed to the greater trust we have for those in our in-groups. When we share a group identity with another person, even a stranger, we subconsciously trust them—and their judgment—even if we have no objective reason to do so. For example, research has found that attendees at music festivals feel that they are less at risk of catching diseases from fellow festivalgoers—and the stronger the connection they feel, the less their perception of health risks.

Our risk tolerance is further buttressed when we feel a shared sense of purpose with those in our group. If you were at a restaurant, you’d likely be extremely hesitant to let a stranger drink from your water glass. But at religious services, you may think nothing of sharing a glass of wine with a dozen people. Research has similarly shown that people dining together at political rallies see less risk in sharing utensils.

How do these theories apply to COVID-19? Recent studies have shown that we are 2.6 times more likely to get COVID-19 from an infected person if we dine with them, and 3.6 times more likely to get COVID-19 from them if we share a car ride with them. As restrictions loosen and opportunities present themselves, you are going to spend more time with people you care about—i.e., your in-group. You’ll be less bothered when they cough without a mask on. And you’ll almost certainly do a worse job maintaining social distance.

More topically, in the past month, I’ve heard from patients who have contracted COVID-19 while participating in the mass protests against police brutality. Despite considering themselves quite observant of COVID-19 precautions, these patients described having “momentarily” and inexplicably overlooked basic safeguards such as keeping a mask on while marching close to many others.

This brings home the most important aspect of these intragroup dynamics: They are entirely subconscious. Most people aren’t making a calculated risk assessment before removing their mask at a rally, or before spending a few hours chatting with a friend they haven’t seen in months. It feels right, and so we do it.

And so we have a confluence of threats: those sharing our group identities—the people whom we care about the most, trust the most, and therefore with whom we are most likely to engage in risky behaviors—are those we are most likely to get COVID-19 from and give COVID-19 to.

Given that COVID-19 spreads through close contact from person-to-person—carried by our breathing, singing, laughing, and shouting—such a lapse in diligence is a recipe for disaster.

I share all of this in the spirit of “forewarned is forearmed.” As COVID-19 cases continue to escalate in record numbers, states are still undecided about what measures to implement in response, and many people are fatigued with lockdowns. You are going to meet friends, go to celebrations, attend rallies and other events. It will feel great to be out and seeing people, reconnecting, and making a difference. And you might find yourself drifting closer, neglecting your mask, offering a pal a sip of your smoothie.

Stop. Step back. Straighten your mask. Remind yourself: Right now, the best way to demonstrate we care for those important to us is by socially distancing from each other.

Henry Bair is a medical student.

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