From The Center

Early in the pandemic, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene posted a picture of herself exercising with the caption, “this is my COVID protection.” While Greene is certainly known for hyperbole, her sentiment is widely shared: social media is packed with assertions that you’re safe from the virus if you eat healthy and exercise. But for every tweet wryly asking how many weightlifters are hospitalized with the virus, you’ll find…a COVID-ravaged weightlifter begging, from his hospital bed, that people mask up and get vaccinated. He’s joining others in calling for a different set of protective practices, including vaccination, quality masks, rapid testing, and ventilation.  

These reactions seem miles apart but are two sides of the same coin. Both create a vision of the world where we can be shielded from harm if we follow a specific regimen. Social media gives these perspectives new reach, but the approach is far from new. 

In his book about the cholera outbreaks of the 1800s, Charles Rosenburg notes that to die of cholera was to die under suspicious circumstances. Cholera was only thought to impact the “lower orders” of society, the morally licentious, the drunkards or the sinful, even though lived experience tragically proved otherwise. If an upstanding citizen succumbed, the next day the rumor mill would buzz with evidence of the individual’s hidden vice or secret imprudence. If you didn’t live like “those people” you were safe.

With COVID, you can hardly mention someone’s passing without being asked about their age, vaccination status or “underlying conditions.” Even just contracting COVID has been viewed as a failing. Did you wear your mask right? Shouldn’t you have skipped that social event? We want reassurance that our rules work. 

But the truth is, we can mask, distance, and ventilate and still be felled by our viral foe. Or we can eat healthy, live fearlessly, and still succumb to a severe infection. Our brains will then work overtime to maintain our narratives: “well, if the virus weren’t so prevalent in the community, our measures could have withstood the viral challenge,” or “well, if only big pharma wasn’t suppressing cures and doctors had given us ivermectin earlier, everything would be fine.” And we become understandably angry when others’ actions threaten or undermine the effectiveness of our rules. One side is frustrated by those that flaunt mitigating strategies and swamp our communities with virus. The other is irritated by rules that treat the virus as problematic for more than just the sick, weak or old. We will do almost anything to preserve the belief that we can individually protect ourselves, that our health is under our control.

Some take a different approach: instead of wrestling with the health risks of the virus, they redefine the threat entirely. During the cholera years, many asserted the real menace to humanity was rampant immorality. Cholera was a bacterial divining rod – and a useful tool for identifying where the real trouble lay. This shifted the concern away from an unpredictable, invisible bacterium and to the visible, popular enemies of drunkenness, slothfulness, and, gasp, dancing. 

Contrarian scientist Robert Malone has employed a similar tactic. Recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast he proposed that our society is in the grips of mass formation psychosis. Malone argues people have been “hypnotized” into fearing the virus and will blindly follow leaders under the guise of COVID protectionism, eventually leading to tyranny. He suggests the only way to break the spell of COVID-ism is to convince people the real danger is virally-induced oppression. This is a particularly clever, time-tested narrative. Don’t fear cholera, fear the devil…don’t fear COVID, fear totalitarianism. 

These narratives are powerful antidotes to the chaos of a pandemic, but the same tactics that soothe our psyche can wreck our relationships and societies. They can make us think others are the real threat and encourage us to cling tightly to our side. They can encourage us to be real jerks to each other. When someone tells you their husband died of COVID, unless you’re doing a public health investigation, it’s not the right time to ask about underlying health conditions or vaccination status - that’s your brain longing to know that you’re still safe. Likewise, flaunting, mocking, or resisting others’ requests for COVID precautions may be your brain striving to maintain a narrative where your choices are rational and prudent.

Of course, there is objective reality. We shouldn’t let our narrative-weaving instincts fool us that  “whatever works for you is great.” There are rational, prudent actions to reduce harms. And we discover them by always being open to new information, collaborating with others who have different perspectives, and thoughtfully adjusting our own views. All of which requires keeping our natural responses in check. 

Being aware of our long-standing tendency won’t magically mend our societal rifts. We are far past easy solutions. There is unlikely to be resolution for anyone. More will die than should and people will feel more restricted than they’d like. Nobody is happy. But recognizing our shared instincts to navigate these daunting times in ways that help us sleep at night is still valuable. Perhaps it gives us enough space to see our neighbor as a fellow human wrestling just as much as we are, even while we disagree their approach. The pandemic will end. And we will, hopefully, still be fellow countrymen. We will need all the strategies we can to not destroy relationships in the process of surviving this pandemic. Perhaps instead of being battle-worn enemies, we become fellow weary travelers, longing for a land where we can all survive and thrive. 

Jessica Hardin has an MS in Emerging Infectious Disease & Biohaardous Threat Agents from Georgetown University. She helps schools, businesses and community organizations tackle challenges posed by outbreaks of various diseases like COVID, norovirus and Ebola. Previously, she led teams of analysts at Project Argus, using open source intelligence to track infectious disease outbreaks and civil instability globally. Jessica then helped develop the Media Innovation Center to support journalism by forecasting the rapidly shifting media landscape. She also enjoys geopolitical forecasting and participated in an IARPA-funded geopolitical forecasting competition and research project. Jessica is also an artist and lives with her husband and two young sons in South Carolina. She has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed by Julie Mastrine, AllSides Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right bias).