Covid Doomerism as Conspiracy Theory

For a long time now, I have been periodically losing Twitter followers for lashing out at what we might call “covid doomer” online content. Often times when I do this, it “sounds like” I am adopting a right-wing or libertarian position, denying the reality of the pandemic, etc., because people either do not know about the kinds of extreme views I am talking about or — what seems more common — they think we should tolerate such views because they are pointing in the right direction and at the very least can do no harm. The former response makes sense, though I wish my comrades would trust that I have actually seen content like I describe. The latter is both frustrating and insidious, because tolerating misinformation just because it’s on our side is a recipe for becoming a mirror image of the right. We have a duty to tell the truth as we understand it, and we also have a duty not to share inflammatory or terrifying content without good reason to believe it’s true.

It’s always a bit of a loser’s game to talk about diffuse online trends, because a kettle logic response always emerges: I’ve never seen anything of the sort, I’ve only seen good and responsible versions that you are unfairly exaggerating, and the statements you’re quoting are completely true as stated. With that being said, I will define covid doomer content as misinformation that makes selective or misleading use of statistics, medical studies, or extrapolations from trends in order to stoke fear and anxiety around covid. Individuals may post it cynically, simply to gain online clout, or they may pass it along in all sincerity.

Whatever the motivations of individual posters, the net effect of covid doomer content is to shut down all rational discussion. In place of a genuine weighing of alternatives and tradeoffs, covid doomers lay down ultimatums — either you agree with me, or you support eugenics or mass death. And in a strange short-circuit, you personally are treated as though you are directly responsible for the deaths that would result from acting on (whatever they take to be) your opinions.

The hidden premise here seems to be that, with the proper policy mix, covid could be eliminated. It’s not always clear what this policy would look like. Sometimes they speak whistfully of a “real lockdown,” even though China’s severe lockdown policies are failing to fully contain omicron (a fact they deny), or even suggest that “we never locked down” — i.e., the profound disruption of social and economic life in the spring of 2020 simply never occurred. There is a great emphasis on mask mandates as well, but puzzlingly enough, vaccine mandates (and vaccines in general) do not seem to figure much into doomer discourse. Nor do improved ventilation or more generous paid sick leave, steps that seem to me to be so obviously necessary that the failure to implement them is almost literally criminal.

The mechanism is not really important within the economy of their rhetoric, though. Whatever it takes is worth it, not only because of the deaths caused by covid, but also because of the risk of long covid, a real if ill-defined phenomenon whose prevelance and severity they vastly exaggerate. I have seen people tweeting that half of all Americans will be permanently disabled by long covid within a few years. Yesterday someone proclaimed to me, as if it were self-evident, that human extinction is a real possibility because long covid could cause spontaneous heart failure in 3-5 years. This kind of content may seem too obviously crazy to be harmful, but people really are blighting their lives because of it, living like hermits to avoid the danger of long covid. That’s damaging not only to them, but to the rest of us who are deprived of their company and contribution — all because of scary things they read online.

Getting back to our exposition of the doomer worldview, we see that eliminating covid is possible and that any risk of covid is completely intolerable. We also look around and see that covid has not been eliminated and the powers that be (and their lackeys online, me chief among them) have chosen to tolerate that intolerable risk. Why would they do such a thing? The only possible answer is sheer malice. Either they simply value the economy over human life (this is admittedly one of their more plausible claims), or they believe that letting covid run its course will produce a kind of naturally-occurring Social Darwinism that will eliminate the weak (this is normally referred to as eugenics). Naturally, the less rational option has tended to predominate, so that anyone advocating for anything but ever-increasing covid-related restrictions is espousing “eugenics” — albeit a strange kind of eugenics that, through long covid, aims to increase the number of disabled people.

We are obviously well down the path to the argumentum ad Hitlerum here. But this conspiracy to leverage the pandemic for Nazi-esque aims is unique among conspiracy theories, insofar as we are all implicated in it. As soon as you utter a non-doomer opinion, you become a stormtrooper for eugenics — they believe you are telling them that you want people to become disabled and die. They are out there in the social media trenches every day saving lives, while you are consciously endangering and harming everyone around you.

On a practical level, of course, the best thing to do is ignore them. But if I were into doing the best thing, I simply wouldn’t be on Twitter in the first place. Instead, I allow myself to get wound up by doomer content, which is either shared onto my timeline by seemingly smart people or DMed to me by friends who don’t have my best interests at heart. And it does seem to wind me up more than most other stupid content. I hate anti-vaxxers and election deniers and all number of other conspiracy-mongers, yet their stuff doesn’t seem to grab me and demand a response in the same way as covid doomerism.

Why this special irritation? First and foremost, I am embarrassed by the fact that covid doomerism is so vastly overrepresented among academics, particularly humanities academics — following in the footsteps of previous conspiracy theories like 9/11 Truth or the belief that Creston Davis’s transparently fraudulent fake online grad school was secretly a good idea. I also resent that people feel entitled to call strangers eugenicists and virtual murderers at the drop of a hat — not only because I don’t like being gravely insulted, but also because at the end of the day I believe genuine dialogue is hugely important and covid doomerism makes it impossible.

More than that, though, I resent that it gets a pass because it’s seemingly “on the right side” or seems like it can’t do any harm. Surely there’s nothing wrong with people being too cautious about covid, right? Well, honestly, yes there is. I’ve already pointed out that people are letting their finite, irretrievable lives get stolen from them by their fear of long covid. They are damaging or even destroying relationships on the basis of these false beliefs. They are habitually, insistently consuming content that is constricting their intellectual horizon and making them dumber. That doesn’t just hurt them — when people isolate themselves and make themselves ignorant, it hurts everyone.

They don’t see it that way, though. They profess to find social isolation to be completely fine, perhaps even better than everyday life. Masking is easy and fun and has no downsides. Damage to childhood development and lost opportunities for education are either non-existent or completely unimportant in the face of the eugenic wave. Can’t do math when you’re dead, kid! This dismissive attitude invalidates everything we have all done, all the sacrifices we have collectively made, in our admittedly mostly failed effort to contain this disease. And it loads all of us down with guilt for what is ultimately a fluke natural event.

Presumably there were missed opportunities to more fully contain covid in the early months. Even though it’s hard to imagine how we would have seized those opportunities, given our ramshackle institutions for global self-governance, I can acknowledge the possibility. But those opportunities really were missed, irretrievably missed — and as soon as the omicron variant evolved, that door permanently closed. Maybe the world didn’t have to become irreversibly more hostile to human life when the novel coronavirus of 2019 first crossed the species barrier, but that’s how it turned out and there’s no fixing it.

It’s devastating to really think about it, but it’s the true. Some level of higher excess deaths are unavoidable from now on. Not every covid death is a policy choice! Policy can mitigate it, but omicron is simply too contagious to imagine that lockdowns — even the supposedly “real” ones — would get us to covid zero. The transition to endemic covid really does mean getting used to a higher level of deaths. Not resigning ourselves to fatalism! Not giving up on all mitigation efforts! But also not imagining that we can or should live on permanent emergency footing — or that the only reason not to adopt permanent emergency footing is because we are eugenicists who crave mass death.

We are very far from figuring out the most just or equitable way to distribute the ineliminible risk of covid or the best way to balance our desire to live something like a recognizably normal daily life with the need to minimize that risk. Even if a zero death rate is unattainable, too many people are dying. But we cannot get there if an important segment of the left and center-left sound like complete crazy people. So please, for the love of God, for your own good and the good of those around you, stop sharing covid doomer content. The sanity you save may be your own!

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