Chapter 3: The Rise of the Covidians
UPDATE: An audio version of this chapter is now available exclusively for subscribers, read by Clint Russell:
At the beginning of the Covid era (early 2020), I kept expecting some kind of a doomsday cult to arise. One of my favorite books is La Guerra del Fin del Mundo (The War of the End of the World) by Mario Vargas Llosa. In it, Llosa follows a group of separatists that arose in the badlands of Brazil around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a story about the rise of this cult and its charismatic leader Antônio Vicente, “El Conselheiro.” But more than that, it’s about the moment in time that gave rise to this cult—a moment that, looking back, seemed destined to create a doomsday cult of some kind, if not exactly this one. It’s a moment of anxiety about the turn of the century, about the rapid changes brought on with the transition of Brazil from rule by monarchy (with the support of the church) to a modern republic. The old currency is outlawed; a new one is being imposed on the populace. It’s a time of drought, famine, and pestilence.
In this context, roving preacher Antônio wakes the rural populations from their spiritual slumbers with a message that resonates: the end is near; time to fix up your crumbling churches and get right with God. Once Antônio has a large following, he leads them to the Promised Land of Belo Monte in northeast Brazil.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book, which is based on a true story. I highly recommend checking it out or at least reading the historical accounts of what happened.
Llosa’s book was very much on my mind in the early days of the pandemic. I kept waiting for someone to come along, some charismatic preacher, and declare that Covid was a sign of the end times, in this symbolically rich year of 2020 no less.
And then it very slowly dawned on me that what we were seeing wasn’t the creation of breakaway religious sects or cults, but mainstream society being turned into Covidians. We were seeing the establishment of a new state religion, a new orthodoxy that was being embraced by almost everyone. This was an orthodoxy of medical-doctor saints, a set of new beliefs about the world, and a set of new rules for living. We were all being co-opted into it. The doomsday cult was what happened to everyday, mainstream society.
In this new religion, your face was impure and had to be covered at all times to prevent the spewing of vile, infectious, evil spirits out into the world. We now believed that the air around us was literally toxic. We were having our brains washed by the endless waves of media-fed fear and ubiquitous propaganda about the need to endlessly wash our hands and stay six feet apart and only leave our homes if we absolutely had to.
It took a long time for me to realize what was happening because I thought of new religious movements as arising among a fringe of economically marginalized people who go off to live in some mountain retreat or South American country no one has ever heard of. But this wasn’t a fringe thing; it was an everyone thing.
Caring about Covid
If you want to understand this new state religion, and I think it’s vital that we do because of the huge role it’s playing right now in the breakup of America, the most important thing to understand is the relationship Covidians have with the disease itself.
At this point we are all influenced by Wuist thinking. But if you are reading this, my guess is that you care about a wide range of things. You care about being safe. Not taking unnecessary risks. Your child’s mental health. The color of your lawn. You care about Covid not becoming an existential threat to the people you love or to your nation. When reality showed you it wasn’t that, you were ready to go back to caring about all the regular things.
The Covidians don’t actually care about the people dying of Covid. They don’t care about the health of the people (if they did, all of their attention would be turned to reducing obesity, the number one preventable risk factor). They care about Covid. If it’s hard to wrap your head around this, consider how a hardcore Green Bay Packers fan (a.k.a. a Cheesehead) thinks about his team. He cares about the Packers. This is true when the Packers win, and it’s true when they lose. It’s true during the season, when Cheeseheads obsess over every gameday detail, and it’s true in the off-season, when they obsess about trade rumors and the upcoming draft and the controversy about who should start at QB in the fall. Cheeseheads can talk endlessly about these things because they care about the Packers. The team could go a whole year and not win a single game. The devoted Cheesehead would still care about the Packers.
The Covidians care about Covid. Period. As one interviewee put it (and I wish I could find that clip) when asked if wearing two masks and a face shield outside in the park was perhaps excessive: “You don’t get it. Covid is everything!”
Note that as with the football fans and their outlets like sports talk radio, the Covidians’ interest in the subject will ensure a perpetual stream of news and data. Long after C19 as a pandemic has faded, we’ll still have false positives trickling in. How many positives? The Covidians will know. They’ll know about the rumors of animal reservoirs keeping the virus alive. They’ll be able to tell you about how they spotted a neighbor disobeying the latest measures meant to keep us all safe. The channels they watch will continue to run stories for them marking milestones and anniversaries, telling us how full the ICU beds are, reporting the latest studies about whether booster shot number eight (The Ocho) protects you against the Lambda Cubed variant or keeps long-haul patients from developing Heaps-Estrin, which some claim is actually just the name of a real estate brokerage in Toronto, but if so why would they name their company after a rare neurological disease?
The Covidians keep up with the latest news, and they care about the data, in the same way that our Cheesehead cares about football stats. If cases go up, that’s frightening! If the cases go down, that’s good! But there will always be another wave. Another variant. We must remain ever vigilant! No matter what the latest Covid data say, the Covidian doesn’t stop caring about Covid, just as a true Cheesehead still cares about the Packers no matter the current win-loss record.
Because the Covidian always cares, they always want to see more done about Covid. No measure is too harsh, no lockdown too severe, no number of masks too high. Daily booster shots would be just fine, thank you. So long as they are told (or can tell themselves) that it’s for The Covid.
For them, like so many others in this Dim Age, the feedback loop is broken. If the cases go up, it’s because the rules aren’t strict enough or people aren’t following the rules. We need tougher, longer lockdowns! Triple masks! Harsher fines! Vaccine mandates for toddlers! If the cases go down, that means the mandates are working. Now is not the time to let up! Do you want the cases to go back up? People are dying. Dying!
This fearful, reactionary, obsessive mindset makes Wuism the perfect state religion. Its adherents are willing to do anything, to sacrifice everything, in the name of that one thing. The only thing PwP have to do is make the connection between the policies they want and our indisputable need to address The Covid, and it’s game over. If your religious leaders told you the only way to heaven was through donations to the church, would you not give them every spare cent you had? You almost certainly would, if you were genuinely religious and lived in a time with a single dominant faith. History says so.
Long haul Covidians
At this point you may be thinking I’m overdoing an analogy. Yes, some of the people obsessed with Covid have some similarities with religious folks. OK, OK, I get it. But if that’s what you’re thinking, I don’t think you do get it. This isn’t an analogy. It’s an enduring reality for millions of people. They continue to obsessively wash their hands and wipe down their grocery carts as soon as they enter the store. Millions are still wearing disposable gloves everywhere they go. They start sentences with “The CDC says” as if this held some meaning other than as a measurement of political winds.
Covid has become The Organizing Principle of their lives. Everything revolves around it, and it would be easier to get that hardcore Cheesehead to swap his interest in football for curling than to get the people whose lives revolve around the disease to give it up. Covid is their identity (remember the quote about Covid being everything). They’re not going to just give this up!
I actually thought giving it up was a possibility during the summer riot season of 2020, when huge mobs of young people who had been cooped up in their houses for months and had lost their low-wage jobs just coincidently decided to swarm streets to protest racial injustice and generally fuck shit up after that horrific video came out. How naive I was to think this Big Thing would replace Covid as people’s new obsession! Or to think that after changing course and encouraging people to gather in large crowds, the PwP would no longer be able to convince us that going outside was a terrorist act. How wrong I was! Turns out superspreader events are driven not by proximity, but by proximity times immorality. Good thing we had CNN and the CDC to help us through the subtleties of this new math!
We also have to reframe our understanding of much that has gone along with the rise of Wuism. To you, a non-Covidian, masks are an inconvenience, and a big one if you have to keep one on all day for work. But for the Covidian, masking is a way of life. In most public settings, they feel naked without it. Masks are now what I’ve heard called “white Sharia.” The same goes for all the other restrictions and limitations. Think of it like this: no Hasid would genuinely complain about having to wear a kippah or keep kosher; that would be like complaining about being Jewish!
The rise of Wuism means that large numbers of people don’t want to go back to normal. The new normal is their new way of life, and whether or not they enjoy every aspect of it, they are now Covidians. Masking is identity. Booster shots are identity. Doing whatever the CDC tells you to is identity. Social distancing is how they keep evil spirits away, and their gospel says that six feet is the correct distance. Supporting ever-longer lockdowns and mandates isn’t part of an unfortunate trade-off that results in a net good for society. It’s orthodoxy. Dogma. The right thing to do. Period. Everyone who cares about Covid knows this!
Wuism is the health of the state
Maybe at this point I’ve convinced you that Wuism really is a religion. But you may not be convinced that it’s a state religion. It might still look like an organic, if overly hysterical, response to the pandemic. Which it is, but only because Wuism allowed the natural response of fear (driven by 24/7 media coverage) to be directed toward a particular response. Just look at how quickly, and strongly, a consensus formed around acceptable and unacceptable responses to the pandemic.
Sweden’s approach was evil. Australia’s was good. Encouraging people to get more exercise or lose weight was out; staying home and playing video games was in. Boosting your immune system was out; covering your mouth was in. Discussion of therapeutics (of any kind!) was out; social distancing until the vaccine arrived was in. Even discussion about the origins of the virus was as controlled as sex education at a Catholic school.
Speaking of which, wasn’t it interesting how the lab-leak hypothesis was completely off limits (merely discussing it could get you banned from social media) until it wasn’t? Even when the system did an about-face, it did so all in unison. Nonbelievers cried foul at these flip-flops. But to the Covidians, the science always speaks with one voice, and that voice, just like the calming tones of Saint Fauci, is infallible, even if today’s mitzvahs are yesterday’s sins. Of course the science evolves! Don’t you trust the science?
Wuism is uniquely useful to the state because the most important way to show you are a Covidian is to go along with the program. You do care about Covid, don’t you? For the Covidian, identity is compliance, and compliance is identity. Remember: The Covidians don’t care about preventing people from dying of the disease or about overall public health. They care about the disease in the way a Jesus freak cares about the savior. The most important thing to him is that you also care about Him. Go to church! Study the Bible! Listen to the pope! Read the latest guidelines from the CDC!
To the Covidian, herd immunity is the ultimate heresy. It means you’ve stopped caring. The most important thing governments can do is act, as a sign they take Covid very, very seriously. Remember how this was one of the biggest complaints about Trump. He wasn’t doing enough because he didn’t care enough. Any suggestion that we dial back the political response to the virus would be like asking that Jesus freak to tone down his whole “son of God” obsession. Impossible! Haven’t you heard? There’s a virus. A VIRUS!
Is this clear now?
The role of the scapegoat
You may think I’ve beaten this Covidian horse well beyond its last dying gasp from a liquid-filled lung, but I’ve got one final lashing on the way.
Every religion has its scapegoats, its heretics, the people who are bringing the wrath of God down on all of us. Just in case you haven’t clued in to who the scapegoats are in Wuism, it’s you. It’s you if you care about the freedom to leave your home whenever you want. It’s you if you let your mask slip down below your nose. It’s you if you refuse the vaccine. It’s not you if you are fat or got the disease despite taking all the right measures, because the goal of Wuism isn’t (and certainly isn’t among its priests) ensuring public health.
The goal of Wuism, as state religion, is to drive compliance, in part by driving hatred of the noncompliant. Haven’t you heard? The heretics are the reason the cases keep going up! They are the ones that need to be barred from restaurants and theaters and sent to the back of the medical line because they are the ones who won’t accept the jab (and for just a moment, let’s appreciate the profound brilliance of “pandemic of the unvaccinated” as propaganda). Why do these awful unvaccinated people insist on being so awful? Why can’t they just be reasonable and do everything the high priests of Wuism tell them to? Don’t they know it’s for the good of our own souls?
The goal of scapegoating is always to create a group outside the law’s legal protections. That’s what we are seeing right now (see “State of Exception” in additional readings).
One final comment before I finally move on. I strongly believe the rise of Wuism was only possible because our own legacy religious institutions are so weak. In March 2020, nearly every single preacher in the West immediately caved to the demands to eliminate in-person services, despite knowing that these were a vital part in the life (and presumably afterlife) of their parishioners, something that couldn’t be instantly swapped out for a Zoom call, especially for the elderly. How could a preacher weigh jail time versus an eternity of hell for himself (and some of his flock) and come out on the side of shuttering those big oak doors? Not only did Christians give Caesar his due, they handed over the keys to their temple.
And the state, ever opportunistic, used that key to open a Wuist-sized door at the back of the church, sneak in, and take its place behind the pulpit.
I am writing this just after the new governor of New York State, Kathy Hochul, had the following to say from behind an actual pulpit in a Brooklyn church:
“I prayed a lot to God during this time and you know what, God did answer our prayers. He made the smartest men and women, the scientists, the doctors, the researchers — he made them come up with a vaccine. That is from God to us and we must say, ‘Thank you, God. Thank you.’
“And I wear my vaccinated necklace all the time to say, ‘I’m vaccinated!’ Yes, I know you’re vaccinated, you’re the smart ones. But there’s people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants. You know who they are!”
“I need you to be my apostles. I need you to go out and talk about it and say, ‘We owe this to each other. We love each other.’”
Can she get an amen for that, my brothers and sisters?