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10 January 2022

How catching Covid has become a moral failing

This is not merely a virus, but a sinner’s mark, as we pretend we could stop getting sick if we just tried hard enough.

By Kat Rosenfield

The other day, someone on my Twitter timeline posted a video clip from the 1982 horror movie The Thing. It’s a well-known scene: Blair, played by Wilford Brimley, has been imprisoned (or, one might say, quarantined) in a tool shed in the Arctic. He’s extremely unhappy about it. 

“I don’t want to stay out here anymore,” he says. “I want to come back inside… I’m not gonna harm anybody and there’s nothing wrong with me. And if there was, I’m all better now.” He stands up. His voice grows urgent, insistent: “I’m all right! I’m much better! And I won’t harm anybody. You gotta let me come back inside!” 

If you’ve seen this movie, you understand its salience to our present pandemic moment: it tells the story of a team at a remote research facility in Antarctica, who are under siege from an alien organism that works like a virus on steroids. Just as Covid-19 infiltrates our bodies by camouflaging itself as an innocuous sugar-coated nobody, the alien Thing “assimilates” its victims and then imitates them, creating a monster that looks and talks just like someone you know. And like all good horror films, the true terror of The Thing isn’t in seeing the monster; it’s in not seeing it. Your friend is cold, and scared, and all he’s asking is that you let him come inside where it’s safe and warm – but you won’t. You can’t. Because you’re scared, too, of the sickness that might be hiding inside him. And so you shut the door and leave him to his fate. He will die out there, alone and afraid. 

Who’s the monster, again?  

There’s a reason why horror films return so often to this kind of scenario. The fear of disease runs deep inside us, a lizard-brain survival instinct that is inextricably bound up with our tribal mistrust of the Other. Evolution steers us this way, and wisely: for most of human history, encountering strangers was a risky proposition not only because they might kill you, but because your unaccustomed immune system could be swiftly overcome by the novel illnesses they carried. And while we might like to think we’ve moved past all that, every so often a new sickness comes along that is frightening enough to fire up those ancient, instinctive neural pathways: the fear, the mistrust, the anger – and the righteousness of the uninfected.  

In these moments, the spread of disease takes on a moral vector, as we grasp for control in the face of the terrifying truth that we are surrounded, always, by microscopic organisms which survive by sickening us, ravaging us and killing us. The virus is the true enemy, of course. But you can’t fight what you can’t see, so we set our sights on the next best thing: the people who carry it.  

This happened almost instantly in 2020, as countries worldwide began locking down to stop the spread of Covid. In the US, pandemic discourse immediately turned political – and hostile. In my own online bubble of Twitter-verified media and political personalities, the tone was striking: less we’re-all-in-this-together, more a profane expression of exasperation with some imagined Trump-supporting idiot who was refusing to cooperate. Wear a damn mask, we sneered. Stay the hell home.  

[See also: Making the unvaccinated pay for their treatment is immoral and dangerous policy]

And while nobody ever quite came out and said so explicitly, it soon became clear that getting sick had become a shameful situation. Even as Covid re-ravaged the US once more in early 2021, nobody seemed to know anyone who’d had the virus, let alone been infected themselves. Of course they didn’t, because Covid wasn’t merely a virus, but a sinner’s mark: it meant that you’d failed to perform the proper rituals, that you’d allowed your vigilance to falter in the face of some selfish temptation. You let your guard down. You took your mask off. You travelled, and gathered, and ate indoors – and in doing so, you put us all at risk. 

It should go without saying that if getting infected tells you something about a person, the ability to successfully avoid a highly contagious, airborne illness is also illuminating. If you were lucky, it suggests you had both the means and the inclination to live like a hermit for a year, working, exercising and socialising from home while a rotating cadre of masked servants delivered everything you wanted right to your door. Under any other circumstances, the class implications of this dynamic would have been obscene. It would be a person’s privilege, not their vulnerability to illness, that would be shameful to admit.   

But the pandemic has been a powerful magnet atop our public moral compass, causing it to spin wildly and then point in a strange new direction. This is our north, now. Stopping the spread of Covid is all that matters; everything else is just noise, and anything you might do in service of our one and only priority is a moral good, no matter how neurotic, how fear-driven, how anti-social. You can stay home in your pyjamas for weeks on end, you can put a $3,000 exercise bike in your living room, you can order in for every meal. You can slam the door in the face of the terrified friend who’s begging you to let him in – after you receive your Thai food take-out from the masked delivery man standing next to them – and you can assure yourself at every turn that you are selflessly saving the world. 

Or, at least, you could do this, in the first phase. The Omicron variant, less deadly than the original-brand coronavirus but far more contagious, deals a serious blow to the fantasy of Covid zero, the notion that we could stop getting sick if we just tried hard enough. But fear and shame still rule the conversation. Too many of us are still clinging to the comforting pretence of piety as protection, to the illusion of control, and to the infuriating spectre of those people, the ones who keep prolonging the pandemic because they won’t do what’s necessary. We do this despite growing evidence that neither masks nor vaccines nor all the hand sanitizer in the world can stop this variant from creeping past our defences; we do it even as the most pious members of the Church of Covid Caution test positive, one by one. We watch, bewildered, as the so-called pandemic of the unvaccinated is exposed as a myth. As it turns out, that sense of moral superiority might protect our egos, but our bodies are still mortal, still vulnerable, still made of meat. 

“But I did everything right,” we whimper, as the fever descends. 

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage