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Covid isn't a human being, it doesn't care what you think about it.
The bizarre, two-year habit of anthropomorphizing a non-sentient virus shows how much American politics is defined by martial language, spite, hyper-individualism, and triggering the libs.
One of the more strange, uniquely American phenomena over the past two years is when media personalities and politicians talk about Covid like it’s a sentient, rational enemy that must be defied, stood up to, and spited. It’s not just a quirky cultural framework that’s interesting to note in its own right, but part of a larger epistemological regime in American political discourse: So much of how we speak about the world is based on tough-guy bullshit, solipsism, martial posturing, hyper-individualism, and triggering the libs.
Since the pandemic began, various forms of this type of posturing, almost always played for applause lines, have manifested but remained largely unexamined as part of a rhetorical pattern. The most recent iteration was a semi-viral rant by conservative commentator Bari Weiss on HBO’s Real Time Friday.
What’s notable about this rant, aside from the fact that it’s presented as edgy or subversive truth-telling when it’s basically bipartisan conventional wisdom at this point (sans, perhaps, mask mandates), is that what she’s spewing is 100 percent, uncut demagoguery. She’s taking genuine and understandable frustrations and re-positioning the cause of the audience’s suffering as not the virus itself, but liberal scolds lobbying for modest mitigation efforts. This re-positioning gets a major applause from Maher's audience, and of course it does: It deliberately appeals to our reptilian brain—the part that’s mad, mad at all the sacrifice and suffering, mad at all the missed birthdays, funerals, and trauma we’ve all suffered over the past two years—and gives it a human face. It’s not Covid, it’s those goddamn Covid-weary liberals who want to shut everything down.
It’s a brilliant rhetorical gambit and not a new one. Take vague anger over the disruption to normal life, and don’t blame a non-sentient, non-intelligent, agency-free virus, but those calling for public health interventions to delay or reduce its spread.
“But liberal Covid scolds are suffering too” is the logical rejoinder to this, “Why would they want to be miserable for no reason?”—perhaps one that enters into the brains of Maher’s audience once they cease applauding like trained seals. “Why would they want to wear masks, shut down schools amid the Omicron outbreak, avoid large indoor gatherings, and undertake other efforts (none of which are ‘lockdowns'’ despite the hysteria)”? Ah, Weiss & Co. have an answer for this: Liberals suffer from a brain pathology that makes them just really love controlling people’s lives. And it’s “virtue signaling”: Mitigation efforts have become a cultural signifier, a way someone shows they care, thus blinding these dopey liberals from Reason and Science and Common Sense. They just really love controlling people’s lives for the sake of doing so. If this sounds familiar, it’s been a libertarian justification for arguing against public health measures like paid maternity leave and seat belts for decades, and has gone hand-in-hand with a similar pathologizing of feminists and black activists. It was John Stossel’s go-to line in the 1990s: Woke Liberals love telling people what to do and are, deep down, just misanthropes who want everyone else to be as miserable as they are.
This cartoon pathologizing is, of course, necessary to dehumanize and dismiss those calling for Covid mitigation measures, for which they gain nothing and, indeed, suffer just like everyone else. Otherwise, how does it make any sense? Surely it can’t be because other, similarly developed countries have employed many such measures to some success? Surely it can’t be because public health advocates and disability activists see the staggeringly high 866,000 death toll in the U.S. and think, “Perhaps our ‘fuck it’ approach isn’t perfect and could use some tweaks.” Maybe it’s because the cliche that “Covid will be endemic and we’re all going to get it so who cares” isn’t actually based on any science, but rather a vague hope from politicians eager to Go Back To Normal and force everyone back to work because anymore social spending is off the table.
Weiss gives a familiar refrain: I’ve done my part, I was vaxxed. I played by the rules. Now I want my freedom. This is a sentiment just about everyone has, at some point or another, expressed. I certainly have to myself in moments of frustration when further restrictions have been placed on me and my loved ones post-Summer 2021. But then I calm down, and remind myself that part of being an adult is understanding that circumstances change, and viruses don’t have agendas or malice. The vaccines were not as effective at preventing transmission as we had hoped and, unfortunately adults have to accept that the world doesn’t owe them anything. They aren’t special or needed or wanted, they are random constellations of cells that just happened to be cognizant. We are not entitled to any cosmic justice. The virus is what it is, and our knee-jerk indignation at further inconveniences—some of which are genuinely difficult and psychologically straining—helps nothing.
This silly anthropomorphizing of Covid manifests in other ways, similarly marked by the American obsession with personal liberty, spite, and martial posturing. “We can’t live in fear of the virus” has been a popular refrain from mugging politicians and pundits, particularly among Republicans in the summer of 2020. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis repeatedly says “hysteria and fear won't drive Florida,” and countless op-eds repeat a similar theme: “We must not be scared.” But what does this even mean? Would a politician ever say, as storm alarms were blaring, “We can’t live in fear of tornadoes,” or as the earth shook, “We can’t live in fear of earthquakes”? Covid doesn’t care if we live in fear, nor does this concept have any meaning when it comes to what is, in effect, a natural phenomenon.
Like Weiss’s statement, this is a very cathartic thing to hear. It sounds good. It tickles that part of our brain that wants to stand up for ourselves and fight back. But Covid isn’t al Qaeda or the Soviet Union or some other human or national enemy: It doesn’t care if we are scared, nor have any concept of what this means. What does it mean to defy it? Presumably the force we’re standing up against is not the virus, but oppressive and overly paranoid protection measures. But again, one is compelled to ask: How the fuck are these measures overcorrecting, or fear-based, when the U.S. is set to hit 1 million deaths in April—or, 264 per 100,000 people as of today—while China, a country with four times the population, has recorded under 6,000 deaths, or 0.35 per 100,000? Even if one accepts the extremely dubious Economist guess of 700,000+ Chinese deaths, it’s still 1/5th ours per capita. Vietnam’s death per 100,000 is 38. Taiwan’s is 3.6. Cuba’s is 73. Germany’s is half the U.S. How can anyone look at America’s Covid rules and determine we did too much. It defies common sense.
Increasingly, high status Savvy and Serious liberals have resigned to letting Covid rip because it’s a “crisis of the unvaccinated,” pointing to much higher rates of death among the unvaccinated. But this pat response ignores those who can’t get vaccinated for health reasons, increased hospitalizations of children, the obscene income disparity of who has and hasn’t been boosted, a lack of support and sick leave for poor communities combined with de facto racist implementation of vaccine roll out (black people are still more likely to be unvaccinated), and the fact that, as much as we may want to spite them, the dying unvaccinated are still human beings the government has a responsibility to protect, even if many are too selfish or misinformed to protect themselves. Off-setting government responsibility to a simple moral binary about those who choose to die and those that don’t is neoliberal ideology at its crudest and cruelest, glossing over, entirely, the messy and complex reasons people remain unvaccinated. It also talks over those with disabilities, and does nothing to mitigate the spread of the disease on the population at large, which because we all share the same ICUs, harms the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
I can't begin to explain how unsexy this shit is. Two years on, no one wants to hear any of this. This piece will almost certainly not traffic or be shared much at all. It sucks. It’s fucking boring. Suggesting modest Covid interventions rather than the bipartisan “let it rip” policy is not something anyone wants to hear. If I wanted to juice the substack tomorrow and pay for Junior’s college fund in a matter of weeks, I would start publishing soft anti-vax stories, complain about one-off cases of mask mandates going too far, talk about Big Pharma needlessly poisoning us with vaccines, complain about school shutdowns. Sure, a couple careers, early on, were made hyping every Covid variant, but a lot, lot more have been made giving the public excuses to be selfish assholes: a market incentive that increases with each miserable passing day. I don’t say this to promote my own ethical standing—which is middle of the pack at best. I say this because I think it’s important for readers to understand just how perverse the media and public incentives are right now. This week, we reached a weekly average death toll over 2000––one of the worst since the beginning of the pandemic, and the only message we heard was, The ticker’s going down so we’re almost out of this, everything is Actually Good. Maybe. Maybe a new variant will quickly emerge just like the last one. Maybe we shouldn’t just assume Good Things Will Magically Happen. Words can’t begin to express how much I wish they would, how much I wish we could just screed our way out of this pandemic: defy it, fight it, get mad at it, own it, trigger it, mock it, and wishful think our way out of it. But we can’t. Because it’s a virus, and there’s no war of ideas to win, no “we can’t live in fear” meta victory in the face of terrorism. It just is. It sucks, it’s boring, and it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just a shitty situation in desperate need of better mitigation efforts.