COVID-19 is a virus, corona is a meme

Ruben Baart
April 3rd 2020

As the viral pandemic continues to spread, so too does the world’s collective uncertainty. As a result, people are turning to media for some levity. And can you blame them. Despite the biological impact the virus has on our lives, the cultural impact of the virus seems to play an evenly important role, potentially surpassing the impact it has on our biology. Here’s why that’s important.

The virality of panic

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of good, rational reasons to be concerned. As of this writing, over 700,000 people have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and over 34,000 of them have ceased across 199 countries. We need to take this seriously.

Yet the coronavirus is being used as a breeding ground for alternative storytelling. Drinking bleach (don’t!) is among the shifty health advice for treating symptoms being shared online.

Stories allow us to experience the world before we actually have to experience it.

Next Nature Ambassador Jason Silva warns us about the “virality of panic”, and how fear is capable in hijacking our nervous system. Stories, or in his words, “myths”, allow us to experience the world before we actually have to experience it. But the stories that amid fear reach more people and spread faster than the truth (even if untrue: think of the alleged Venice dolphins that centered around animals supposedly reclaiming nature in the absence of humans, as National Geographic pointed out).

Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene about the rise of memes. For Dawkins, this was an attempt to understand the evolutionary principles of the the spread of ideas (stories) and other cultural phenomena (myths).

Memes can hijack our mind, and can come to define —or even destroy— our lives.

The meme nowadays has certainly achieved a vibrant presence in popular consciousness; they successfully replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus. They take hold in the human brain, and have infectious spreading power. Silva warns us that “[memes] can hijack our mind, and can come to define —or even destroy— our lives”.

Welcome to the mediasphere

With a large sum of the planet in lockdown, the virus has forced us to spend our lives online. Our loss of community connection has left a significant gap, at a time when people need to feel connected the most. As such, it's no surprise to see the online realm filling this void, by providing virtual meeting spaces. On the one hand, this is a good thing. It shows us how technology is keeping us connected, now more than ever. On the other, Silva argues, the media environment - more than anything else - “traffics in memes”.

Welcome to the mediasphere; the collective ecology of all media. With uncertainty the new norm, the coronavirus unapologetically whirls through this sphere with unforeseeable ends. People watch the news and feel concerned. They actively start seeking information to protect themselves and posting it online. These messages are then widely read and spread, especially if they report something other than what was already read in the mainstream media.

How tragicomic that it’s precisely a biological virus going viral, that has simultaneously made fear go viral.

It is this uncertainty that “breeds fear, and fear hijacks our minds, mutates, spreads, infects others, like a virus,” says Silva. “How tragicomic, then, that it’s precisely a biological virus going viral, that has simultaneously made fear go viral.” Keep in mind that the biological virus itself has no malign intentions towards their hosts or, in fact, any intentions at all. What is being seen is a process that has evolved through natural selection.

In Silva’s view, “we must fight this biological virus by following the guidelines of scientists but we must also take hold of our mental health again by reframing and authoring new narratives for these trying times. Our myth making is important here. We must craft a new story for this effort to triumph against the virus.”

In dreaming out loud towards such a post-corona narrative, let’s make sure it becomes a story that benefits all.

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What is your view on the coronavirus?

Koert van Mensvoort: The virus makes us aware of other lifeforms with other perspectives, desires and needs. It also teaches us that we are one humanity. These viral invaders don’t discriminate on the basis of nationality, race, income, social status, political or sexual preference. We are together and must work together to overcome. Stay safe.

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