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Coronavirus Memes: As Harmless as they Seem

By Flo Rodriguez Steube


Illustration by Katherine Chui

At the end of the school day, tired students hang up Zoom calls and pull themselves up from the desks to stretch their legs. Online classes exhaust them; they can’t see their friends, they can’t stay focused, they can’t understand the material as well as they usually do — they just wish this was all over and they could go back to school. They pull out their phones and absentmindedly scroll through social media. They are met with post after post about the coronavirus. Not all are negative — in fact, most are positive, making jokes about the quarantine or poking fun at a universal lack of motivation. The students chuckle as they read, and scroll, and read, and scroll, reading the words “corona,” “covid,” and “quarantine” countless times. They turn off their phones and slump back onto their chairs.

   This is the nature of students’ interactions with social media in these trying times. However, this infiltration of horrifying world events into every aspect of life is as old as humans are. During the years the Black Plague affected Europe, people used it as inspiration for nursery rhymes. Now, people are using a new coping mechanism to process current events: posting memes on social media.

   Without a doubt, anyone reading this has come into contact with this internet phenomenon. But, while they might provide a good laugh, are these memes really as harmless as they seem?

   Before talking about these jokes, it’s important to note that this mass death is not a funny situation. While seeing an influx of coronavirus memes, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find fewer and fewer offensive and insensitive memes as time went on. When the coronavirus first entered the public eye, a good amount of memes were racist (encouraging the alienation Asian people because the virus originated in China) or overly panicked (implying that everyone who coughs has the coronavirus or that doing certain things will give you the coronavirus). When making jokes about the coronavirus, it’s important to remember that everyone interprets memes differently; something you might see as obviously facetious could be misconstrued as truth, or something you think is funny could be insensitive to others.

   There is plenty of research from every corner of the psychological field that light-hearted humor helps deal with trauma. April Foreman, an executive board member of the American Association of Suicidology, said, “Using humor is just how people cope in grim circumstances, and it’s a very healthy response.” However, in my own personal experience, too much of a good thing can be bad.

   Every day, everywhere I turn, I am reminded of the current situation: I miss out on going school, I miss out on seeing my friends, I miss out on playing my sports season. On top of that, every time I open my phone, every other word is “coronavirus,” or “covid,” or “quarantine,” and I’m overwhelmed with the same end-of-the-world mindset into which so many people around the world are falling.    At times like that, the only thing to do is get off social media for a while. Shut down Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, look away from every meme, news story and motivational post and focus on other things: books, TV shows, FaceTiming friends. Just remember, there are still other things in the world that are not this pandemic.