A New Year's Resolution: No More Covid Essays

The fact is, catching a highly contagious virus doesn't really "mean" much at all

Monthly dest calendar on table in the bright room or modern office  for 2022 year.  side view
Prasert Krainukul/Moment/Getty Images
Daniel Walden

Because I’m a Catholic, I have a cultural disposition toward doing things that cause me unnecessary suffering, and because I’m a millennial, I tend to do those things online. In my case this means retaining a Facebook account, where I can keep up with family, old friends whom I remember fondly, and people whom I actually hate hearing about and ought to remove from my feed but won’t because of the aforementioned Romish perversity. The upside to this is that I get to see what Facebook has become. In a lot of ways it resembles the visible decay of late LiveJournal: everything is either blatant self-promotion (guilty as charged) or amateur philosophizing, the last and most stubborn inhabitants of a dying platform.

The self-promotion part isn’t new, of course, and it often makes for some of the best laughs on an otherwise bleak website. When somebody’s right wing and extremely divorced aunt is digging in her heels about her transparent essential oils MLM scam, that’s a miniature Real Housewives spinoff taking shape right there on your screen, and you don’t even have to pay for cable TV. The real dread comes from the essays hidden among the innocent posts like meandering, omphaloskeptic landmines, just waiting for you to click the “read more” link and plaster your screen with the kind of existential crisis that comes only to people who have never lived more than 20 minutes from a Trader Joe’s. Such essays take many forms, and they tend to shift with the times. Thus the latest round of viral mutation has triggered similar mutation in the Facebook essay, and we are now in the midst of an alarming rise in the incidence of unacceptably long posts — and even, God help us, Twitter threads with post counts in the plural dozens and multi-slide Instagram stories — that ask the question: “What does it mean that I got Covid?”

These are not, I hasten to add, posts that talk about experiencing certain symptoms or encouraging people to get vaccinated. We’ve all probably seen enough of both to be slightly annoyed by them, but that’s just a function of their algorithmic prominence and our own emotional fatigue from over two years of global pandemic — there is no moral or intellectual deficiency in their making. The “Covid crisis” essay is a very different animal. It is written within hours of a positive test, or at most within a day; it is always written by a young person who is fully up to date on vaccinations and who has no major comorbidities that make a diagnosis much scarier; it dwells for two or three paragraphs (but seemingly for a geologic age) on what the writer imagines to be serious ethical dilemmas having to do with whether quarantine allows them to fetch their mail or get groceries; it contains no discussion at all of how difficult it will be to work and make ends meet in isolation, because the writer has been working from home this whole time.

With all this in mind, I invite you to join me in a New Year’s commitment to preventing the spread of a genre of writing whose unchecked proliferation will not kill people but might give me, personally, a brain hemorrhage.

As much as COVID-19 still dominates much of our lives, we can forgive ourselves for thinking that it’s become a rich source of meaning. But this confuses meaning and impact: how much things affect us is not actually a very good barometer of what or how much they might mean. The fact is, catching a widespread virus doesn’t really “mean” much at all, except that you should follow the now-standard isolation protocols that your local public health department has probably made extremely easy to find on their website. Maybe you feel an injury to your sense of “normalcy” because you’ll be cut off from seeing your friends face to face for five to ten days. Congratulations on having a busy social calendar, I guess? Sometimes the rhythms of our social lives get interrupted, and this might feel different because it’s got a prominent place in the headlines, but people get sick and have to stay inside all the time. You’ve probably had to cancel plans before after having an unexpected project dropped on you at work. In fact, you’ve got a project right now: stay home according to public health guidelines, until you’re testing negative again, and absolutely do not write the essay.

The thing that you need to avoid, above all, is reflecting at length on whether being one of the new cases of COVID-19 makes you “part of the problem.” If you can’t avoid that kind of reflection, go see an elderly priest or rabbi or guru or some other figure with many years of immersion in a system of moral reasoning that is used by grown-ups rather than by developmentally arrested twenty- and thirtysomethings who list “following politics'' as a hobby in their dating profiles.

I’m not sure how so many people on the “we believe in facts'' and “follow the science” side of the culture war got it into their heads that masks and vaccines are magic talismans that are guaranteed to stop you from ever getting sick, but there’s a very good reason that one of the writers of the Gospels has Jesus remind people that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Pandemics don’t care if you’re a very good boy who eats your vegetables and colors inside the lines, and God did not orchestrate this as a personal moral referendum on you. If you don’t yet have a healthy sense of your own place in the cosmos, please at least behave as if you do; I promise you’re more likable that way.

There are a lot of people with a strong investment in all of us thinking about the pandemic primarily as a question of personal guilt. But I’m a Catholic who dates other men: we know a lot about dealing with guilt, especially about figuring out when it’s deserved or not, and this is not one of those times. There are some extremely guilty people: a good way of finding them is to go through the list of people who get paid by the government and depend on votes to keep their jobs. Other guilty parties would include business owners, university trustees, landlords, and in general anybody who’s insisted that the most important thing is to make sure that their employees are still able to make money (for them). All of them would like you to consider it some kind of moral fault if you catch COVID-19, because it stops you from thinking about the fact that they’ve continued to make an awful lot of cash while an awful lot of people have died.

I don’t think you should avoid any reflection. There’s meaning here, but it’s social rather than individual: take a look around you for some inspiration. You can still write that long post if you want, but give some thought to all the things that led to your getting a positive test and having to ask your friend to make a grocery run for you. A lot of things went into this other than how you, personally, behaved and what your behavior might or might not have in common with Bad People. Maybe you can write about that instead. If you must write something, at least promise yourself and your fellow human beings that you’ll use paragraph divisions. My eyes are bad enough as it is without starting at “I tested positive” and ending six black-on-white screens later with your thoughts on whether we’re living in a simulation. God made the Enter key for a reason: go forth and use it.

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.