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15 September 2021updated 17 Sep 2021 4:57pm

Laughing at Nicki Minaj’s Covid claim missed the point entirely

The rapper’s Twitter spat with Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and Laura Kuenssberg may have been funny, but it was also a distraction.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I was away over the past few days so I missed most of the fallout from this year’s Met Gala. But as I was waiting for my flight home to begin boarding, I glanced at Twitter – only to find that the global rap icon Nicki Minaj was somehow involved in a spat with England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, the BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, and the British Prime Minister.

The story had everything. An A-list celebrity wading into the weeds of British political discourse will always provoke a frenzy – not since Lindsay Lohan dissed the Northamptonshire town of Kettering on the night of the EU referendum have we seen such a clash between the upper echelons of the entertainment industry and outraged UK politicos. Add a dash of sex and superiority into the mix, and Minaj was always going to dominate the news agenda, whatever else was going on.

At issue were the New York City rules requiring staff and visitors to museums and entertainment spaces to be fully vaccinated. Minaj initially tweeted on Monday that she wouldn’t be getting her vaccination just to attend the Met Gala and suggested she felt she needed to do more “research” about the safety of vaccines. She followed up with an anecdote in support of her hesitancy that was, well, read for yourself.

Cue a social media storm. You have to feel for the poor man (if he exists) who woke up on Tuesday to find half of Twitter speculating about his testicles – with most concluding he had most likely used vaccine side effects as an excuse to his fiancée to cover up an adulterously contracted STD.

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You also can’t help but pity poor Whitty, who after 18 months of stoically guiding the nation through the science of this pandemic was asked about the singer’s cousin’s friend’s afflicted genitalia at a press conference on the UK government’s plan for Covid this winter. Whitty dismissed the idea that vaccines could have this effect as “a myth”, “clearly ridiculous”, “designed just to scare”, continuing that people who are “peddling untruths… should be ashamed”. Boris Johnson followed up by saying he was “not as familiar with the works of Nicki Minaj as I probably should be” and reiterating the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

Then things got really weird. Minaj spotted this video and quoted-tweeted it with what can only be described as a “sassy” comment, which was picked up by the BBC’s Kuenssberg, who then herself got trolled by the rapper. Still following? Because what comes next should really be filed under “Go home 2021, you are drunk”. Minaj tweeted an audio message supposedly intended for Johnson, in which she puts on her most hammed-up “British” accent and regales him with tales of being at school with Margaret Thatcher. No, it doesn’t make any more sense if you listen to it. Yes, you definitely should.

The whole thing is a beautifully complete microcosm of internet culture – how online discourse bleeds into real life and then back again, with no real boundary between the two; celebrity shenanigans and political spats and viral conspiracy theories all tangled up in a giant ball of cybernetic twine. There’s a bonus for Brits getting to see figures who have become household names on this pandemic-ridden isle catapulted to the sphere of actual supersonic fame. And of course, it allows the 80 per cent of UK adults who are fully vaccinated to engage in some performative smugness against a woman worth an estimated $85m who has no idea they exist and clearly doesn’t care about their mockery of her cousin’s afflicted friend. All in all, it was a great way to kill time in an airport.

But at the risk of taking the fun out everything, I worry we’re missing the point about Minaj tweeting vaccine horror stories to her 22.6 million Twitter followers. For one thing, vaccine hesitancy is serious – according to Gallup polling, between 14 per cent and 26 per cent of Americans don’t plan to get vaccinated – and the anxieties that drive it are too. The idea that vaccines make your gonads swell up might be one of the more far-fetched scare stories, but concerns about the impact of vaccines on fertility are much more widespread – enough to warrant public health information campaigns across the world debunking them. It is ingrained in humans to worry on a limbic level about our ability to have children. Laughing at people who hold those fears isn’t going to do much to convince them.

More effective would surely be public health messaging geared at explaining that Covid-19 itself – not the vaccine – could be a risk to fertility, particularly for men. It would also be helpful for politicians to talk more openly about the potential impact of vaccines on reproductive health, such as disrupting a woman’s menstrual cycle. There has been next to no information for women who say they have noticed this effect, even as research is underway; Johnson certainly hasn’t mentioned it at a press conference. Lack of information breeds uncertainty and, at the extreme end, conspiracy theories. Minaj’s cousin’s friend could have presented a “teachable moment” to address some of that.

The other point is that Tuesday’s press conference was supposed to be about the UK’s plan to cope with Covid over the winter, as deaths and hospitalisations creep up and there are fears of overloading the health service during flu season. Booster jabs, vaccinations on offer for teenagers and the threat of bringing back measures like masks has not done much to ease the concerns of those who worry we are headed for another winter crisis. There are a whole host of questions for the government – on what’s being done to prevent schools having to close again, on extending support for workers and businesses if industries are unable to fully reopen, on how to clear the existing NHS backlog before the season turns – that are a lot more pertinent than someone who may or may not have caught a nasty testicular infection, or a best-selling musician trolling the Prime Minister in a silly voice.

To say the Nicki Minaj tweetstorm was a distraction is an understatement: it is the quintessential social media diversion – so ingrained in internet culture it has its own meme – drawing our attention away from news that is dull but actually important by tricking us into thinking we’re discussing something meaningful and newsworthy. When really, we’ve just spent 24 hours obsessing over someone else’s balls.

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