This story originally appeared in Peste Magazine on Jan. 22, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
A recent series of media stories depicting individuals advocating for stronger COVID policies as unsympathetic characters on the fringes of society ignited a firestorm among public health experts and grassroots advocates alike. To a public looking to change the channel on the long-running tragedy of the pandemic, these commentaries and the ensuing backlash may seem unremarkable. Yet these pieces not only ignore the ongoing toll of the pandemic, they also have material consequences. Taken together, these accounts can be read as warning shots in a broader war on empathy.
Though the pandemic continues to claim losses on par with the September 11 attacks each week, it has prompted far less in the way of societal reckoning. Instead of calling for a national memorial to pay tribute to those lost or a commission to examine systemic failures in pandemic response, a growing chorus of prominent journalists and pundits have taken aim at another target—the proponents of a more vigorous public health response. A December story in the New York Times called such individuals “the last holdouts,” depicting those attempting to avoid coronavirus infection as eccentric agoraphobes, paranoid contrarians, and social misfits. A recent essay in the New Yorker described the People’s CDC—a grassroots organization seeking to provide clear and actionable information about the pandemic—as a “ragtag coalition” given to making “eye-popping statements” about public health. A piece in The New Republic went even further, suggesting that Long COVID sufferers may be afflicted with a psychosomatic complaint, not a true medical diagnosis. Framing legitimate political critiques and demands for action as grudges held by an intractable out-group, these stories report the pandemic more as a trend piece than as hard news.
Yet the desire for better COVID protections is not concentrated among the well-heeled, as these accounts have misleadingly suggested. Reflecting the pandemic’s sharply uneven impacts, Black and Hispanic Americans as well as individuals with a disability have consistently voiced greater concern about COVID and supported a stronger policy response. By suggesting that well-to-do “liberals” are the vanguard of COVID mitigations, these stories shift attention away from the groups that have been most impacted and that remain at greatest risk.
Bringing a sympathetic human face to a problem is an essential part of generating the will to act on it: as every nonprofit organization knows, recruiting the sympathies of the public is an indispensable part of fundraising and advocacy efforts. In the context of the pandemic, accounts that depict the health and economic struggles of Long COVID patients—for example—could help to put Long COVID on the agenda of policymakers and funders as a key area for research and investment. By associating COVID concern with unsympathetic elites, or by deriding Long COVID patients and immunocompromised people, these recent media depictions may dampen the political will to act and undermine demands for accountability.
Disparaging the COVID concerned and those most impacted by the pandemic will also predictably alienate those groups—who justifiably sense that they have been betrayed by formerly trusted institutions like the CDC. As such, irresponsible media treatment may create the conditions for increased paranoia and fear-mongering. Over recent months, unrealistic and conspiratorial framings of COVID-19 and the pandemic have gained traction on social media—such as, for example, the suggestion that SARS-CoV-2 is more dangerous than HIV. Such claims are not scientifically grounded, but they nonetheless speak to those feeling abandoned and marginalized.
These “holdouts” are not wrong to note that the issue of COVID safety is being marginalized on many fronts. At the same time that media commentaries are sapping readers’ sympathy for vulnerable groups, some leading cultural institutions have cast pandemic protections as the object of ridicule or shame. In November, the Met Opera released a video on Instagram that celebrated the end of its masking policy, featuring glamorously dressed opera patrons commenting to the effect that “it feels happier” and “it feels like freedom.” As music critic Joshua Kolman wrote, the Met seemed to be saying “Throw away your mask — it’s the sophisticated thing to do.” (After receiving withering criticism from disability and long COVID advocates, the Met took down the video.)
In official public culture, the pandemic is also being moved out of view. The Biden administration continues to downplay the devastation of COVID and to spin the pandemic in terms of “mission accomplished.” Official occasions marking the impact of the pandemic have been fewer and further between, with no presidential moment of silence recognizing COVID deaths since February 2021. And last Friday, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, President Biden stated “I sometimes underestimate [the national COVID death toll] because I stopped thinking about it.”
In diminishing and dismissing the experience of those most affected by the pandemic, these media reports and public comments resemble the indifferent and sometimes hostile news coverage of the AIDS pandemic in its early years. Rather than delivering critical deep dives on the policies that created a “you do you” form of public health in the United States, media have effectively normalized these choices. In doing so, they are punching down on groups that are socially, politically, and medically disserved and uncritically reinforcing the perspectives of the powerful—a marked departure from the aspiration of the fourth estate, among other cultural institutions, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
To be sure, not all journalists have taken the low road on COVID. Writers like Amy Maxmen, Steven Thrasher, and Austin Fisher have delivered powerful and morally urgent reports on the human costs of the pandemic. The Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong has consistently spoken truth to power in his COVID dispatches, centering and humanizing immunocompromised Americans, Long COVID patients, and the bereaved. In a Twitter commentary reflecting on his role chronicling the pandemic, Yong wrote “Bearing witness to suffering is one of the most important things we can do as journalists—and as people.” Others, such as TIME journalist Abigail Abrams, have provided a vision for a better and more inclusive “new normal” that “allow[s] people with disabilities, who are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as nondisabled people, to engage more fully in many parts of society.”
This month begins the fourth year of the COVID pandemic in the United States—a crisis that has now claimed the lives of more than one million of our fellow Americans and disabled many more. Bearing witness to the painful truths of the pandemic—in media and in public culture—remains an urgent and mostly unrealized priority. Like the early years of AIDS, our current cultural moment demands COVID coverage that is grounded in the values that journalists ostensibly hold dear—sympathy for underdogs, skepticism of the party line, an instinct for muckraking, and a refusal to merely manufacture consent.