For a while now it’s been clear the primary objective of most pandemic coverage is to scare the socks off mass audiences. Good news, bad news, boring news, interesting news, news that’s more of a wash in the final analysis, news that’s a net plus overall: it’s all presented as terrifying, more signs of the Apocalypse. There’s no better example than the stampede to advertise the “first death from Omicron” in the United States.
Matt Orfalea does a hilarious job of stitching together an homage to the latest moral panic. So many great little details here, from the “Way Too Early” background to one reporter’s premature death report to the “aggressive Covid vice” imagery, the dramatic Biden-cough, and so much more.
It was the world’s loudest record-scratch when the WHO in the first week of December said the ominous “Omicron variant” of Covid-19 had been detected in 38 countries, but without any known deaths.
No deaths? How could that be? In the United States in late November, we’d already skipped past the stunned-curiosity phase and moved straight into active mass panic, with “fallout from the Omicron variant” causing the Dow to fall 652 points in a day when news of the mutant contagion arrived. Right away, we had a travel ban from southern Africa, an address urging calm from President Mumbles, and a declaration of a “Variant of Concern” from the CDC, as “scientists raced” to learn more about this “almost Frankensteinish” new strain of Covid-19.
The next month of Omicron coverage offered a fascinating window into our Covid-fixated future. For most of December, we were presented with an unbroken string of scare stories that in many cases actively buried the lede on the most important question: is this thing going to kill me? The Washington Post on December 14th, for instance, ran a story about how the “CDC warns” that a “punishing wave” could be coming as soon as January. The piece noted Omicron was “dramatically more transmissible” and “a more slippery foe when encountered by neutralizing antibodies,” but ignored the issue of lethality altogether, which would seem impossible to do by accident.
“How deadly is the Omicron variant? WHO releases death report,” wrote the Express U.K. earlier this week, with the following sub-headline:
OMICRON cases have increased more than tenfold since authorities identified the first UK infections in November, but scientists’ knowledge of the variant has increased in kind. The World Health Organization (WHO) released its first death report this weekend, outlining how dangerous it really is.
Reading that headline hits your fear center, making you anxious to know just exactly “how dangerous it really is.” What does that mean? Scrolling down, you first read that Omicron mutations “allow it to escape immunity provided by both vaccine doses,” that “it reduces two doses of Pfizer to 30 percent effectiveness, with AstraZeneca potentially down to zero,” and that while boosters can restore effectiveness to 75 percent, “many are at Omicron's mercy.” Not good!
Only far down the piece do you read that since the WHO’s “no deaths” report in early December, the disease has “spread rapidly, and one person in the UK has died with the new variant… Recent data suggests the disease Omicron causes is milder than its predecessors…”
The distinction between “dying with” and “dying from” is a sticking point in theory if you’re trying to accurately gauge the lethality of a thing, but journalists have mostly shrugged it off.
On December 20th, a man in Houston died “with” Omicron. The Harris County Public Health office issued a release citing an “Omicron Variant-Related” death, but Harris County judge Lisa Hidalgo, sporting a stylish tree-branch-pattern mask, wasted no time in announcing, “The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has arrived in full force.”
As shown in Matt’s video, Hidalgo raised the county’s County’s Covid-19 “threat level” status to “Level-2 Orange,” bringing us back to the halcyon days of the War on Terror, when the government each day assigned us a mathematical Expected Freakout Level (EFL) about things over which we had no control.
Within hours, national press outlets like CNN had reported the “first death attributed to the Omicron variant,” gushing, as Jeremy Diamond is shown doing in this video, that “Covid surges are surging!” Pundits wasted little time wagging their bony death-fingers in our direction: “First Omicron Death in U.S. Was Reinfection—A Warning to Those Who’ve Already Had COVID,” wrote Newsweek.
Shortly after, a Harris County Public Health official named Martha Marquez hedged, saying they could confirm the dead man was Omicron-positive, but the cause of death had not yet been determined.
The arrival of both the Delta and Omicron variants were reported in ways that recalled the classic “Africanized killer bees” media panics of yore. Stay in your homes and be vigilant about the highly aggressive African invader who just might move in next door: for a good long time, this was a staple of local TV, as noted in Bowling for Columbine:
Descriptions of Omicron as the scary scary thing coming from southern Africa have been near carbon-copies of those old bee stories. Kudos to the few outlets at home and in Europe that pointed out the hypocrisy of this coverage. If you’re really bent on using the deadly new “Africanized” variant to frighten people into getting vaccinated, shouldn’t you also be “racing” to pass patent waivers so countries like India and South Africa can make their own vaccines, thereby preventing the spread of mutations before they even have a chance to become headlines here?
If they’re determined to keep going in the scare direction, they should do a better job of it. Omicron is certainly an improvement over Delta, but they should dispense with the pretense and start giving true Fangoria names to coronavirus strains: the “Mutilator” Variant, the “Suffocating Agony” variant, the “Shaft-Sagger,” the “Face-Eater,” etc. Would you bet against something like that coming?
* That is not @Orf in the death suit.