Personifying COVID-19: Why Do We Give a Disease Human Traits?

Lisa Martens

Our strange tendency to think of disease as sentient, deliberate, and vengeful.

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

This morning, a friend of mine sent me this quote from her local Pittsburgh news source: "More than nine months into the pandemic, COVID-19 is spreading with a vengeance."

The language struck me. Vengeance. Were we supposed to think of the disease like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill? And does personifying a disease make it easier or harder to handle?

A disease like COVID-19 has no feelings. It seeks a place where it can inhabit, or it dies. It doesn't care about me or you. It doesn't even care if we live or die. It really doesn't even care about itself. Like a zombie, it's just on an unthinking quest. And yet we see this over and over again—this tendency to personify the disease, to give it a mission, to declare war on it, and to insist that it has a nefarious plot.

Maybe this is a tendency to think of nature as somehow always plotting against us, as some kind of evil witch who wants us all dead, instead of being a nurturing earth mother who gave us life to begin with.

The news is filled with such examples, some of which I have listed here. I quote these specifically for their headlines, not their content:

COVID’s war on the holidays in Santa Fe

What will 2021 bring? Promising vaccines and 'the darkest days of our war on COVID-19'

COVID-19: Cuomo Debuts 'Weapon That Will Win War' Against Virus

Come on, this has to seem absurd to you even if you think turkey is delicious: Is COVID really declaring a "war" on holidays?

We invented holidays. We give them meaning. However, these headlines make it seem like COVID is some kind of sentient, intelligent creature—making plans, aiming to destroy our favorite family meals like a spikey Scrooge.

We don't just do this with COVID, either.

By now, we have all heard of the phrase "the war on drugs," an initiative that actually failed miserably to stop drug use, and gave us public service announcements that indirectly became music to do drugs to (because as we have seen with pandemic sex parties, people love the forbidden and dangerous). Many speculate that the war on drugs actually made things worse.

So why do we do this? Why do we repeatedly declare war on diseases and situations that are not sentient? Why do we personify problems that have no human characteristics at all...problems that infiltrate our society like water, problems that just fall into cracks and inadvertedly, unintentionally exploit human psychology–the human need to bond, to connect, to feel pleasure?

Do we feel this way because we think anything that hurts us has to be intentionally hurting us? Because we think there's some magic combination of actions that will free us from the pain and undo the damage done?

I began to search for answers.

Interestingly, human minds do look for human emotions and motivations in others...even in inanimate objects. Since we are social animals, this makes sense. We are hardwired to look for motivations—kind or malicious. Even babies recognize faces and face-like objects and show a preference for them. There's something primal about our need to try to figure out what is a person, and whether or not things have people-like motivations.

Because COVID-19 has such a large impact on our lives, our society, and the world, it's difficult for us to grasp that this change is not intentional. This might account for all the conspiracy theories as well—and conspiracy theories can help disconnected people feel more powerful and in control, which can explain why they arise in turbulent times.

There's something unsettling in accepting that a germ is just a germ, that viruses sometimes happen, and that this actually was...not planned. Not intentional. Not personal.

There is a drive to give the virus meaning, goals, and desires. We start to think in absurdities: The virus wants to ruin Christmas. That's why it did all of this. And if not the virus, those nefarious people who released it just to cure it. That's why we can't wear masks! If we do..."it" wins. "It" gets what "it" wanted...whatever that "it" is.

And on and on, we try to personify the disease. To make it the bad guy. To make it sexy. The virus makes events a taboo, an act of rebellion, an act of abandon. Anyone who reminds you of the risks is unsexy, uncool, a follower, a fool.

If you personify the disease too much and think of it as something that is personally targeting you, your goals, and your life, then you get to think of non-event goers and mask-wearers as cowards...not as logical people, but as terrified followers as you, the wise one, really enjoy life. You're beating the "enemy" by not "living in fear."

Our own minds can work against us.

People who follow recommendations by wearing face masks are not necessarily living in fear, just like people who wear seat belts are not living in fear.

(Of course, some people are living in fear. But following COVID-19 precautions does not necessarily mean that's what is happening.)

Personifying the disease leads to extreme behavior—disregard and paranoia. We think as the virus as something to "fight against", then we start trying to win battles against it—battles like travel, like Christmas, like freedom. We think of the virus as something intentionally thwarting our plans.

This is just our minds trying to find the human in the disease. Decide what it's "trying" to do. Crack a code...that cannot be cracked, because it does not exist.

COVID-19 has no plan.

It's disappointing for minds that are searching for the human in the inhuman. The reason, the cause. There has to be a reason why we lost so much, why so much changed. What is the plot? The arc? When will a superhero come and undo large amounts of time? When will the bad guys lose? Who are the bad guys?

COVID-19 just a disease looking for anyone and anything—looking for something inhabitable. It doesn't care about holidays, our jobs, our loved ones. It's not out to destroy a specific country. It doesn't belong to any political party. There's no plot, no agenda. It doesn't even have feelings about its own existence.

And the only way for us to overcome something like that is to be just as cool, just as calm, just as impersonal, just as indifferent to the passing of time.

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