Like so many, I am spending a lot of time on social media in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s an attempt both to stay connected while social distancing and to stay updated in this uncertain and anxious time.
In the process, I find myself observing some striking (though not at all surprising) connections between what I am seeing here and what I study as a folklorist.
I teach an undergraduate seminar at UNLV called “Interpreting Illness,” in which the students and I explore how individuals, communities, and institutions make sense of the disruption and unease that accompany disease. We spend a lot of time on the rumors and legends that circulate in the midst of widespread disease outbreaks. Inevitably, the students spot recurring themes and motifs in the stories circulating during outbreaks, ranging from the bubonic plague to leprosy to HIV/AIDS to Ebola. We can now add COVID-19 to that list.
We consistently see people of all different backgrounds turn to familiar storylines to fill in the gaps in their knowledge — particularly in cases where scientists, medical professionals, and people in power are grappling to figure things out as well. These stories circulate quickly — on social media, in the news, in face-to-face conversations — precisely because they are so familiar. Those with the most traction often are not verified by official sources (and may even contradict information coming from these sources). But people nevertheless find them plausible because they seem like they could be true. They map onto people’s existing understandings of the world, offering explanations that just make sense.
With each new epidemic, then, we see the re-emergence of characters, motifs, and themes that have circulated in the past, adapted for the social and political contexts of the present. COVID-19 is no exception.
A handful of examples:
The Role of “Strange” Customs: Rumors connecting the origin of COVID-19 to Chinese people eating bats share notable similarities with medical professionals and laypeople alike falsely linking the “primitive” and “exotic” customs and eating habits of African tribes to the origin of AIDS.
Government Conspiracies: COVID-19 conspiracy thinking — that the virus was created by the Chinese government (or in another version, the CIA) as a form of biowarfare; that powerful people like Bill Gates introduced the virus to make money on a vaccine; that a vaccine exists but is being withheld by the government; that the National Guard is being deployed to force people to stay in their homes — is also strikingly similar to many of the rumors that circulated during the HIV/AIDS, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola pandemics.
Deliberate Spread: Over the last week, I have seen a number of stories circulating that folklorists would characterize as “deliberate-infection narratives” — a person intentionally coughs on others and then announces that he or she has the virus. In another, a white woman yells obscenities at an Asian-American shopper, pulls down her mask, and coughs on him before turning around and walking away."
Deliberate infection narratives, where the infected body is transformed into a weapon, have been documented as early as the 17th century, and were common during the 1980s and 1990s when the fears surrounding HIV/AIDS transmission were particularly heightened.
During this time period, gas pumps (as well as bus seats, movie theater seats, and pay telephones) featured prominently in rumors that emerged from this narrative tradition. Shared primarily via forwarded emails, these messages very often included fabricated quotes attributed to law enforcement or health officials. They would warn that an anonymous person with AIDS put their infected blood on a needle and placed the needle in the gas pump handle. When an unsuspecting person picked up the handle, they became infected.
Through these rumors, seemingly mundane artifacts of everyday life were transformed into threats. The same is visible in COVID-19 rumors. For example, I have repeatedly encountered social media posts featuring a warning message from a friend of a hospital employee who got called into an emergency meeting to address how quickly the virus is spreading from gas pumps. In the message, people are urged to wear gloves while pumping their gas and then throw the gloves out before getting back into their cars.
While details differ from the contaminated needle warnings, key motifs from the past have re-emerged in the present: the gas pump is foregrounded as a site of danger, and the message is authorized by people “in the know.” It is true that surface transmission is one way COVID-19 can spread, but it is unlikely that disproportionately high numbers of people are being infected this way. Yet the message is compelling (and thus, spread widely). Why? One likely explanation is that it directs people toward very tangible steps they can take to protect themselves. The message brings some sense of control, if only in one small way.
Many of these stories are fundamentally about the overlapping dynamics of innocence and blame, self and other. In both the past and the present, the rumors and stories that people share in the face of deadly disease outbreaks place blame on those marked in some way as “other”— apathetic or nefarious corporations, institutions, or governments that are not working in the general population’s best interests; foreigners; groups already marginalized within the dominant culture; individuals breaking the social and cultural norms of the dominant culture in which the stories are shared.
To be clear, as a folklorist, I am not centrally concerned with whether these stories are true or not. I am more interested in what stories circulate the most and why. The rumors, legends, and conspiracy theories people hear and tell, particularly within their trusted social networks, play a significant role in how people grapple with uncertainty and fear. Stories placing blame on some known or unknown “other,” for example, can exaggerate the risk that is located outside our familiar social worlds. This, in turn, can mitigate the idea that we, or those closest to us, are dangerous ourselves, making the outbreak fit more easily within people’s worldviews.
So, why is it important that we pay attention to these stories? Why do they matter?
The stories that people tell, retell, and listen to affect how people assess their personal risk, which has very real public health implications. They also affect official policy responses to outbreaks — for example, interventions that focus on strengthening both the symbolic and tangible boundaries between “us” and “them.” And as the alarming rise in cases of violence against Asian-Americans in the United States clearly illustrates, stories have the potential to reaffirm the stigmatization of specific groups that already occupy marginalized, or contingent, positions of belonging.
Ultimately, while the specific details differ, the foundational elements of stories about frightening disease outbreaks remain remarkably similar. We have seen these stories before and we will most likely see them again. As we (often unwittingly) draw from stories shared in the past to make sense of the present, it is worth thinking critically about which stories are the most tellable, and why we find them so compelling.