For the last nine months, my team of anthropologists and I have been asking people across the United States to tell us their experiences of living during a global pandemic. We have seen a dangerous theme emerge: the belief that dangers of the virus come from strangers and that friendship and family ties can cancel contagion. Though logical, these interpretations of biology are wrong — sometimes dead wrong.
Stories help people make sense of a world in crisis. They can also lead to potentially harmful behaviors that can interfere with the ability to stay healthy or protect loved ones from Covid-19. When we asked dozens of interviewees across a spectrum of demographics, “What is Covid-19?” they consistently responded with answers like, “It’s a guy we don’t know,” or “It’s dangerous because we know the cold and the flu, but we don’t know this one.”
The people we have interviewed want to know the story of Covid-19. Some scour news articles about the trajectory of droplets and the shape of the Covid-19 particle. Many anxiously read ever-changing stories about where and how the virus lives: Does it remain on cardboard, and for how long? Do children carry it? Is being 6 feet apart safe for both inside and outside?
These stories change how people imagine the virus and its impact on bodies and lives. People use them to turn Covid-19 into the virus they know instead of one causing a mysterious disease around the globe.
One person described the virus by saying, “This guy is new so we’re running as fast as we can to catch up.” Another said it’s, “the flu on steroids.” A friend imagined the virus as a living entity that moved in this way: “I have this vision of Covid balls marching up my nose.”
Many interviewees told us that the virus was out to get them. Others think of the virus particles as robots or heartless enemies. A few even suggested that people created the virus in a lab and released it with malicious intent.
One interviewee said, I will “never be able to look at the world the same way again” after watching data visualizations of how far a sneeze travels or sweat flying off people running or riding bikes. Each person now makes new choices about where and how they move through a store, if at all, and when they need to cross to the other side of the street while walking the dog.
The stories people hold of the origin and intent of unknown particles can and do lead to sometimes illogical conclusions about other people. That’s not unexpected. Throughout history there have been examples of epidemics and blame. Someone else is often considered to be the vector of disease. Some interviewees in the Southwest told us that they avoid shopping where Indigenous people go because of high rates of Covid-19 on reservations, indicating the kind of racism and avoidance that often comes with contagious disease.
What we are seeing in our data from this project has a twist on the idea of “other.” People are telling themselves stories about the safety of people they know. This means that many people report that they’re doing everything possible to stay safe and, in the next breath, tell us about a party they attended for the holidays with friends and family. “It’s OK,” they say, “we knew everyone there.”
“Knowing” others, for our interviewees, can mean kinship, or it can mean being familiar with where they work or how much risk they take. At first glance, this scrutiny might seem to work. Someone who works at a big box store might not be safe, while someone who works at home or with just two or three people, limiting their interactions with the public, might be trusted. But this logic often skips a beat. The “people we know,” they tell us, sometimes just flew in on a plane. Or they work in a hospital’s Covid-19 unit. Or they are good people who, the speaker says, wouldn’t ever take risks.
It is within the intimacy of friendship and love that people assume safety and tamp down the stories of risk.
Most people know logically that viruses do not travel along lines of familiarity, and familiarity does not cancel contagion. But in moments of weakness in a time when hope seems dim, it’s easy to let the story of a particle determine where and how to connect with other people.
The take-home message from our interviews is that all of us should take a good look at the chances we take and who we consider to be safe and remain careful about exposure and risk through this dark winter until the pandemic lets up — and before we make choices that could end in despair.
Lisa J. Hardy is a medical anthropologist, associate professor of anthropology, and director of the Social Science Community-engagement Lab at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.