You Never Forget Your First Viral Pandemic

The coronavirus is the first time Gen Z and younger millennials have had to confront virality as something that can kill more than just your reputation

TThose videos of spring breakers blithely dismissing the seriousness of Covid-19 that were making the rounds a few weeks ago were maddening to watch. They were also an example of a poignant irony: The kids were going viral on social media for denying the importance of a real virus. “If I get corona, I get corona,” one sunburned, shirtless, backward baseball-capped bro from Ohio said on camera. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” It was like watching the collision between an M.C. Escher staircase and a Girls Gone Wild episode.

First came the inevitable online shaming, with celebrities and civilians alike castigating the partiers for their hubris and selfishness. Then, the reverb of schadenfreude as people took delight in the shaming. A new portmanteau arose, “covidiot,” to describe people who ignore social distancing rules or hoard scarce items like toilet paper. Pandemic or no, there is scarcely a less sympathetic crowd than oblivious, inebriated students taking a party vacation from their party schools. But watching the videos ricochet around social media and picking up derision like cow manure gathering under the wagon wheels, I also felt a little sorry for the kids. They were clueless dumbasses, sure. But their cluelessness, at least about this particular issue, was as much a product of their times as of their ignorance.

For Gen Zers (or “zoomers”) like these kids, and even many of the millennials that preceded them, a “virus” is many ways less a biological entity than a social construct or digital phenomenon. Inside your computer, a virus can destroy your hard drive, wipe away your data, erase your emails. In the ether of the digital world, a viral process can spread information and ideas (good ones and bad ones alike), turn a random graphic into a well-known meme, incite social change, make someone feel loved and relevant — or even famous — on Twitter or Instagram. It can also cause embarrassment, destroy your reputation, or kill your career. But it cannot literally kill you.

Biological viruses are a whole other story, of course. But if you’re under a certain age, thinking about it may not be such a matter of course. Take chickenpox. Up until a vaccine was introduced in 1995, it was basically a childhood rite of passage to be laid up for a few weeks with fever and a spotty, scabby rash all over your body. But most kids born in the last 25 years or so will never get it. I have vague memories of my own bout with chickenpox, namely of my mother admonishing me not to scratch myself and explaining why I couldn’t go to kindergarten or play with my friends in the neighborhood for a while. Caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is the same one that causes shingles, chickenpox is far more contagious than Covid-19 is thought to be. It doesn’t just spread through the air via coughs and sneezes; it can be transmitted by simply touching the blisters or their icky ooze. But because you’re nearly always immune once you’ve had it and because children recover from chickenpox much more easily than adults, parents used to look forward to their kids just getting it and getting it over with. There’s even a phenomenon called pox parties where parties deliberately exposed their kids to other kids in order to get them all infected at once and gain natural immunity. (Tip: Maybe stick to your original Hunger Games-themed party idea.)

Going viral can also cause embarrassment, destroy your reputation, or kill your career. But it cannot literally kill you.

By just about any measure, Gen Xers like me grew up in remarkably safe times. Sure, nuclear annihilation loomed throughout the 1980s, crime was rampant, and we were old enough to be fully cognizant of the horror of 9/11. But, at least in the United States, we were never drafted into a war, never experienced prolonged periods of violent civil unrest, and never had to cope with the widespread infectious diseases — such as polio, whooping cough, or measles — that punctuated the childhoods of our parents. There were vaccines for all three by the time we were born.

I think it’s fair to say that the concept of a virus as a thing that invades the actual, physical body was something we understood from a young age. From the time we got chickenpox, which generally happened by the age of five or six, we had an instinctive sense of what it meant to stay away from others when were sick. Many of us also heard from our parents and grandparents about polio, a terrifying virus that struck children and left them temporarily (though sometimes permanently) paralyzed and confined to iron lungs. My father talked about being a teenager and standing in a line in a parking lot with hundreds of other kids in his hometown waiting to receive the polio vaccine in 1955. Like just about everyone of my parents’ generation, he knew children who walked with crutches because of polio.

Another virus emerged when I was a teenager, this one a certain death sentence. In 1981, reports began surfacing of an immune deficiency syndrome associated with clusters of gay men in Southern California and New York City. In 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began calling it Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, and by 1984, scientists identified its cause as the virus HIV. In 1992, the year I graduated college, AIDS was the leading cause of death for men between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States. By 1994, it was the leading cause of death of all adults in that age group. Nearly 50,000 people died that year alone.

During college and throughout most of the rest of my twenties, the threat of HIV hung over my dating life like the perpetual anvil teetering over Wile E. Coyote’s head. I was hardly in a high-risk category, but I could still work myself into a tizzy of paranoia about the virus that I got tested every chance I got, even if I’d been celibate since the last test (and the one before that). This anxiety bordered on the absurd, not to mention the egomaniacal, since plenty of people I knew and cared about truly were at risk, and some were getting horrifically ill. Still, the public health message during that time erred on the side of suggesting that any act of uncondomized sex, be it between two teenage virgins in Iowa or IV-drug users in Haight Ashbury, was tantamount to stepping in front of a speeding truck.

The generations that until now associated viral activity with memes and computer bugs are getting about as rude an awakening as it’s possible to get.

The virus we now face has very different contours than HIV. Whereas public health officials used to warn people that “each time you have sex with someone it’s like having sex with every person they’ve had sex with,” the analogy now applies to simply breathing the same air as someone else. Instead of wondering about someone’s sexual history and HIV risk while on a date, we’re worried about who we stood too close to in an elevator or a supermarket line. Meanwhile, 31 years after she included an AIDS fact sheet in the sleeve of her 1989 album Like A Prayer, Madonna is making Instagram videos from her bathroom about the Covid-19 crisis. There’s one in which she sings about eating fried fish because there’s no pasta in the stores (though are we to believe Madonna eats either of those?), and one in which she sits naked in her bathtub talking earnestly about Covid-19 as “the great equalizer.”

Those videos have gone viral, as have those of countless celebrities looking to kill time and entertain their audiences during this indefinite period of social distancing. The generations that until now associated viral activity with memes and computer bugs are getting about as rude an awakening as it’s possible to get. Despite what appears to be a disproportionate ability to avoid getting deathly ill even if infected, there are plenty of young people lying in ICU beds right now, and as of March 18, the CDC reported that nearly 40% of hospitalized Covid-19 patients were between the ages of 20 and 54. That’s a lot scarier than what supposedly “non-high risk” people of earlier generations faced with HIV, and it’s certainly not even in the same universe as a de rigueur childhood virus like chickenpox. It’s no surprise then that the virally shamed spring breaker from Ohio took to Instagram last week to apologize for his remarks. “I will continue to reflect and learn from this and pray for our well-being,” he wrote.

If it took social media virality to get him to understand a real virus, he’s certainly not the only one.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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