Coronavirus, Conspiracy, and Coping with Death
Detours include the Exxon Valdez and the legacy of Meat Loaf
On a cold December night in 2005, John Fowler set to work preparing a romantic meal for his girlfriend, Elizabeth. Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to spend their first Christmas together due to John’s schedule at the hospital, the two aimed to make the evening a special one. Earlier in the year, the 6’6 RN from Alabama had been introduced to the beautiful strawberry blonde with aquamarine eyes through a mutual acquaintance. Elizabeth had enjoyed the freedom of single life, but the immediate chemistry between the two young lovers felt nothing short of heaven-sent. “The Lord led him to me and I am grateful beyond words that He did,” she’d later recount in a blog post.
When Elizabeth arrived, she was greeted with roses, red wine, and moody candlelight. John was so concerned with making the meal unforgettable that he forgot to turn on the oven to cook their chicken dinner. Luckily, the hiccup was quickly forgiven when he presented her with a diamond ring, carefully positioned on a single crimson rose petal. It took several minutes for Elizabeth to choke back her tears sufficiently enough to respond to the proposal with an emphatic ‘yes’.
In the fifteen years following their wedding, the couple would raise seven children together. They settled down in Oxford, MI, a quiet boring suburb where hardly anything ever happens. Like any family, the Fowlers faced hardship from time to time, but from the outside looking in, it seemed as if John and Elizabeth had built a beautiful life together. But, as was the case for millions, COVID-19 brought much of the good in their lives to a screeching halt.
There’s no way to know exactly what the Fowler family was feeling during the early throes of the pandemic. But there are certain details we can be sure of. Surging cases and staffing shortages meant that John was almost certainly spending long, stressful hours fighting blindly against the debilitating disease on the frontlines. Widespread school closures meant that stay-at-home mom Elizabeth would largely be tending to her brood alone. Without warning, she would have been forced into a position to create the structure once provided by classes, clubs, and peers for all seven of her sons and daughters. Around this time, Elizabeth’s Facebook timeline suggests, she started to seek comfort in conspiracy.
Pinpointing the genesis of Elizabeth’s interest in fringe ideology is impossible from the perch of a passive observer. However, I’m not sure that knowing where exactly it started matters all that much. Psychologists have suspected for years that belief in conspiracy theory tends to spike during times of crisis. Thinking that you have an answer – even a nefarious answer – provides comfort when faced with a total lack of control. Throw in a steady stream of misinformation and valid criticism against the efficacy of political powers and corporations, and it’s really not difficult to see how a person might become enamored with the idea of Ivermectin as a miracle coronavirus cure. Buying into the explanation that heavy metals in vaccines cause chronic illness in children is easier to cope with than the reality that there often is no explanation as to why some children are destined to suffer. Unless you are a scientist of some sort, believing whether that booster shot is filled with something helpful or harmful is largely a matter of where one places their faith.
After months of reposting memes and clickbait filled with tenuous claims that the COVID vaccine “contained magnets” and “turned off T-cells”, Elizabeth and her husband were unsurprisingly averse to the idea of inoculation when it finally became available. The vitriol eventually directed at her once deified front-line worker spouse further cemented her convictions. And in November, in the waning days of the Delta virus wave, she inevitably fell ill.
Within a week of testing positive, Elizabeth was rushed to an ICU to have a breathing tube slithered down her trachea. When this measure did little to raise her blood oxygen to a sustainable level, surgeons hooked her up to an ECMO. Blood was drained out of one of her major arteries, pumped into an artificial oxygenator, and fed back into her ailing body. She began developing clots and eventually began to lose circulation in her fingers and toes. This prompted doctors to put her on anticoagulants, which resulted in frequent bloody noses. When her oxygen levels finally stabilized enough to perform a tracheostomy, the incision site bled for days.
After weeks in the hospital, her kidneys began to fail and she needed to start taking dialysis. The propofol used to keep her sedate caused her triglyceride levels to spike, leading to a case of pancreatitis. As she was weaned off of tranquilizers and slowly starting to regain consciousness, her belly began to swell. Upon performing emergency surgery, her caretakers discovered that her bowels had perforated. Portions of her large intestine had to be removed, and surgeons frantically installed an ostomy bag to collect backed-up stool that had seeped into her abdominal cavity. Her organs went into septic shock. After 67 days of grueling treatment, Elizabeth died at just 39 years old.
Elizabeth’s story isn’t particularly unique. Of the roughly 5.5 million COVID-19 fatalities thus far, many have suffered the gruesome yet understated complications that ultimately robbed Elizabeth of her life. Her seven children are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of individuals that have lost one or both parents to the disease over the last few years.
Instead, What made Elizabeth stand out to me was her inclusion on a website called Sorryantivaxxer.com.
Moderated by an entity identified only as the “Vaxman”, it’s a meticulously recorded archive detailing the demise (or near-demise) of COVID victims. Each post contains screenshots from the social media accounts of individuals vocally opposed to vaccines, starting with debunked news and crudely made memes that eventually devolve to futile pleas for survival into the virtual void. It was on one of these posts that I found Elizabeth’s now inactive Facebook profile, linked to a BlogSpot recounting her early days of marriage and motherhood. It was also on one of these posts where I found the GoFundMe organized by Elizabeth’s sister, populated with in-depth updates on her sibling’s prognosis.
By most measures, SorryAntiVaxxer is a pretty brutal place. The “sorry” in the web site’s address is at least a little bit facetious in nature. On a surface level, the task of recording the progression of delusion and illness through the exact words of those that have suffered seems like a noble one. After all, who better to convince a skeptic to seek help than a skeptic that’s reneged? “With all the disinformation out there, real stories built from anti-vaxxer's own words and posts is needed to cut through all of the noise,” Vaxman wrote on their Patreon page.
But in practice, there’s little sincere sympathy to be found. “Thanks for stealing ECMO, a rare medical resource, from people who were very likely MUCH more deserving, for *7 WEEKS*. If there were a hell I hope you're burning in it right now. GOOD RIDDANCE,” one commenter says in response to Elizabeth’s plight.
As you can imagine, these samplings are some of the tamer contributions. But, the disdain isn’t solely directed at Elizabeth – dozens of others have found themselves showcased and ridiculed posthumously on this digital mausoleum. What’s more, SorryAntiVaxxer is a comparatively small platform devoted to highlighting COVID-19 deaths. For instance, the infamous r/HermanCainAwards subreddit has been garnering media attention for months. Named after the late Republican Tea Party activist who contracted the disease shortly after publically attending a political rally for former president Trump, the forum has garnered nearly a half-million subscribers to date.
Parsing out the ethics of these platforms is tricky. I don’t have a great answer or substantial data on whether hyper-critical sites and forums are actually effective at all in convincing people to get vaccinated. Maybe they exist purely as the online equivalent to those rooms where people pay a fee to smash beer bottles and old televisions with a sledgehammer. But I’m less interested in finding a subjective answer as to whether these spaces are “right” or “wrong”. Regardless of the verdict, there’s something about sites like r/HermanCainAwards and SorryAntiVaxxer.com that keeps people hooked. What is that something? And more importantly, what does that something say about us?
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The first step to finding out what draws us to the most divisive and macabre corners of the internet lies firstly in identifying how those corners came to be. Personally, I believe that the process took place over the course of three separate phases:
Phase 1: Creation of COVID memorials
Commemorating the dead through text and image is far from a new phenomenon. Some sources claim that the first obituaries can be traced back to ancient Rome. Later on, inventions such as the printing press eventually aided in spreading the word concerning prominent deaths. In the United States and elsewhere, obituaries became a mainstay by the 19th century. During times of war, death notices became a crucial tool for those trying to keep track of loved ones on the field.
Once the human toll of the coronavirus became clear, it’s not at all surprising that some individuals launched projects in an attempt to remember the dead. Naturally, the majority of those efforts manifested online rather than in print. The earliest iterations were reverent rather than cynical, set in motion well before an easily accessible vaccine was in sight.
A popular example lies in a Twitter account titled FacesOfCOVID, which aims to memorialize the departed by pairing snapshots and obituary links with humanizing facts. Scrolling through the feed, you’ll find out that Carol wore bright pink glasses loved Yahtzee and Scrabble. Harry spent his weekends deep-sea fishing with a cooler full of cold beers. John adored his wife of 37 years. Many of the replies found here are those of empaths, lamenting that Carol and Harry and John are gone too soon.
Spaces like Faces have a distinct lack of information concerning the politics of the individuals featured. There’s no speculation concerning whether the person in question was “at fault” for their death because most of the people highlighted died before they had access to a vaccine.
But as time has passed, victims have become less perfect. As the voluntarily unvaccinated have become increasingly prominent in death counts, the activity of Faces has significantly slowed. The account has even taken to sometimes reposting previous deaths on one-year anniversaries rather than reporting new fatalities. I can’t criticize them for this, because I think the human heart can only process so much loss. When faced with a seemingly never-ending influx of tragedy, there eventually comes when a person needs to choose where to allocate their efforts and energy. This leads us into the next phase…
Phase 2: Compassion Fatigue
Initially, it felt right (even virtuous) to keep tabs on pandemic losses. When earth-shattering events like death and hospitalization are reduced to intangible numbers, having a visual to hang onto is an immeasurably valuable aid. Poignant or informative images illustrate the severity of the situation at any given time, which in turn helps people make decisions in the absence of clear-cut guidelines. My partner finds solace religiously checking the line graphs of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority’s wastewater tracker. When I’m momentarily annoyed about having to mask up in public, visions of intubated patients serve as a reminder that the hoops that I jump through aren’t for nothing.
But, after a few hundred thousand Harrys and Carols and Johns pass on, it becomes impossible to maintain the same level of sympathy. The ability to mourn one another is among the most beautiful human aspects, but we’re not built to sustain it over the course of multiple years.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Exxon Valdez oil spill – it happened a few years before I was born, and I had always been under the impression that whatever damage had been done was somehow corrected long ago. Recently, I discovered that that was not the case at all. Less than 10% of the oil was ever cleaned up, and large swaths of Alaska’s gulf have emulsified into a sort of sludge with a viscosity akin to mayonnaise. This was hard for me to believe, considering how much the photographs of gulls suffocating in thick layers of oil shocked and concerned Americans at the time of the spill. But upon reflection, I suppose you can only look at so many pictures of blackened gulls before you’ve reached a point where you’re desensitized to their plight. It’s not that the circumstance is any less sad or upsetting, but when you’re facing a long battle with a devastating force, you can’t stop to mourn every seabird because otherwise, you’d never stop crying and probably die of starvation or sleep deprivation.
While the loss of human life is arguably more devastating than that of a bird, the constant report of COVID death isn’t unlike the steady stream of gulls dying in Alaska. In both cases, onlookers experience compassion fatigue. Just as we can’t focus on the plight of every singular bird, it quickly becomes exhausting and overwhelming to care about ALL of the sufferings that COVID has caused. Some cope with this by numbing themselves to goings-on. In turn, they are able to convince themselves to varying degrees that the havoc of the pandemic is a force so large that the actions any one person takes are ultimately meaningless in making a significant difference. But for those who struggle to shut out their emotions, Phase 3 comes into play.
Phase 3: Care transmutes to anger
Care cannot exist without the potential for anger. If a person you care about is horribly wronged, or a cause you care about absolutely mismanaged, it’s natural to feel angry. It is proof that you have an emotional investment. Without that anger, you’d be left with nothing more than cool indifference.
There are so many things about the pandemic that are undeniably frustrating. I couldn’t possibly list them all. The pseudo-feel good stories (like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one) of intubated couples dying side-by-side alone are enough to drive a person to madness. Customers shopping maskless at the grocery store at Omicron’s peak have inspired temporary rages in the pit of my gut that I didn’t know I could feel for a complete stranger. Over the years, anger has played a much more prominent role in the day-to-day lives of many. As time passes, the palpable hatred that pulsates through comment sections has become increasingly easier to relate to. Despite how ugly the words can get at times, there’s a certain sense of catharsis in browsing through the unfiltered fury, a comradery in knowing that there are people as irritated as you are.
I recognize this anger as a flaw in myself, but I think it’s hardly something I’m alone in experiencing. It is the reason why places like r/HermanCainAwards and SorryAntiVaxxers can thrive and exist. It is the reason why people used to line up to watch public executions. While the virus itself is the one responsible for the tectonic shifts we’ve all had to make in our lives, the people that blatantly disregard safeguards to stop the spread make suitable proxies for punishment. When we’re able to agree that an individual is somehow getting their comeuppance, we have fewer qualms regarding their loss.
Take the recent death of music industry legend Meat Loaf, for instance. His inaugural album, Bat Out of Hell, has sold somewhere around 40 million copies. According to Spotify, the least popular track has been streamed no less than 6.5 million times. The numbers alone suggest that there was a time when he was wholeheartedly beloved. An outpouring of support flooded social media when the news first went live. But, as soon as sources such as TMZ began to speculate a COVID-related infection may have contributed to his demise, the tune quickly began to change. Despite the fact that the singer never publically commented on his vaccination status, his open disdain for mask mandates in one of his final interviews was enough to make him a target for vitriol following his passing. Some users even tried to discredit the singer’s talent altogether in light of the recent news, using the argument that Meat Loaf was nothing more than a vessel for songwriter Jim Steinman.
Losing a voice that we love is difficult, but it becomes less difficult when we find reasons to love the voice less. That is how we’ve come to the point where we comb through the online artifacts of the dead and dying. Without the boundless energy to offer equal condolences, this quells the pain left to the living.
Without a doubt, the platforms built to scrutinize the dead are ugly. Ideally, we’d find a way to carry on in a way that both acknowledges our flaws and offers forgiveness. But is the fact that we can’t all turn the other cheek in the face of unbridled frustration an indication that society has grown irreparably callous?
In short, no.
We struggle with the same limitations and imperfections that we always have. This is just how it happens to manifest at the moment.
Coming to the conclusion that people should stop being so harsh to the dead online is easy in concept, but difficult in practice. A pre-Socratic philosopher by the name of Protagoras once criticized revenge because once the damage is dealt, it cannot be undealt. He’s right. Death is ultimately an unsatisfying punishment because it doesn’t change the perceived sins an individual committed in life. You can laugh at the sick comedy in Elizabeth’s inaccurate COVID claims and the irony of her fate, but nearly anyone with an ounce of empathy ultimately walks away from the tale feeling a sort of emptiness in their core. There are still seven kids that have to find a way to navigate the world without a mother. It rips a little chunk out of you, and as futile as revenge may be, placing blame somewhere feels like a temporary fix.
I can’t say for sure that we’ll ever find a way to fill the holes that have been ripped out of us over the years. I hope that somehow, we do. But until then, the commiseration, grieving, and story-telling that happens online – even when delivered in the form of nasty comments – will have to suffice.
If Oxford, MI sounds at all familiar, it’s because 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley gunned down four students at the town’s high school back in November. The story was moderately publicized when his parents decided to skip town rather than turn themselves in. But at this point, school shootings are par for the course, and barring this event Oxford seems to be exceedingly ordinary.
I’ll take a stand and say that this argument is a preposterous one. While Steinman’s contributions shouldn’t be erased from the history books, so much of Meat Loaf’s appeal was in the blood, sweat, and tears he put into his performances. For sure we need to give credit to Steinman for the catchiness of masterpieces like “Bat Out of Hell”, but I don’t think anyone can make the argument in good faith that the thing that made numbers like “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was genius lyricism.
To me it's important that these deaths and how these people acted be recorded for posterity. The segregationist political parties during the civil rights movement didn't die until it became embarrassing to be a neo-nazi, and it took the ugliness being nationally televised for that to happen. COVID is no different and these people who are shown on hermancainawards and other forums, should be shown in all of their miserable glory. It's not just about justice for the innocent people dying from covid (e.g. immunocompromised, people who died in the first wave, etc.) or due to to antivaxxers taking up medical resources (e.g. people who can't get needed surgeries, or people dying in ERs waiting for hospital beds for other non-covid stuff), it's about making sure that the record is set straight and that the people who participated in this atrocity are held to account in the historical record. The only way we move past this is for this to be universal learning moment, where the sheer idiocy and violence inflicted on our healthcare system is so obvious that it can't be denied, and that the culprits living and dead, can't hide from what they did.
One part of the pull is the feeling there are myriad lessons to be found lurking just below the surface. As readers take it in and reflect, it's hard not to wonder if somehow we ourselves are making such egregious errors in some of our own thinking and choices. Part of being human is overcoming our own dysfunctional instincts and biases.