The stories that we tell about contagious illnesses are bullshit.
I learned that lesson personally when I woke up with an outbreak of herpes just days before my twenty-first birthday. It didn’t matter that I was a successful only child from an upper-middle class family. It didn’t matter that I attended a top university, or that my resume boasted impressive internships, or that I’d never suffered from anything more severe than chronic sinus infections.
Nor did it matter that I always used condoms during penetrative sex, or that I had posters promoting consent taped to my bedroom wall. Every story I heard about the “type of person” who contracted STIs was wrong.
In the weeks following my HSV-1 diagnosis, I struggled with the twin scripts of herpes that I’d unwittingly absorbed:
Script 1: My privilege, my intelligence, and my loyalty to safe sex practices meant that I would never contract an STI.
Script 2: My abiding interest in hookup culture, feminist pornography and pleasure meant that I was a dirty slut who was bound to get an STI eventually.
I oscillated between these dueling myths, between the painful shock of the first and the deep shame of the second. Was I a victim of bad luck, or was I a cautionary tale? Had I fallen for the wrong kind of man, or was I the wrong kind of woman? How on earth had this happened to me?
The truth was less romantic but oddly comforting. The herpes virus did not care who I was. A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that invades the body of a host in order to reproduce. It has no agenda beyond its own survival, no conscience or consciousness.
Science isn’t even sure if viruses qualify as alive. And to a virus, any host is a good host.
Which brings us to the virus of the hour. The COVID-19 pandemic is a deadly global nightmare the likes of which we haven’t seen in living memory. Our president’s total failure to contain the coronavirus also means I’m bombarded constantly by deja vu. The terms I use to manage my STI are now all over the news: asymptomatic spread, nondisclosure, viral shedding, super-spreaders.
For some in the herpes community, myself included, the recent saturation of this language is eerie and uncomfortable. But my upset goes beyond familiar language. I spent years getting over my fear of giving herpes to someone I loved. It was terrifying to think that, all of a sudden, there was a new fatal illness that I might catch and unwittingly spread to my family.
My fear has faded somewhat as we learn more about COVID-19, and I can focus on what is within my power to mitigate risk and keep us safe. Then I pick up groceries at the bodega down the block and see people wearing masks that don’t cover their noses. I receive invitations from friends to indoor Halloween parties. My Facebook feed is full of wedding photos and people making holiday travel plans.
Everyone seems to think that their gathering isn’t dangerous because their family won’t get the virus. Not their mother, or their next door neighbor, or their dog walker. They’re not that kind of person. Never mind that they don’t talk about testing, or how many other people they’re socializing with, or where they’ve traveled recently.
Everyone assumes they are the main character of their own life, and that a COVID diagnosis just isn’t in their storyline.
I try not to blame folks for their lapses in judgment. In my pre-herpes life, I believed that I was different, too. The suggestion that I might contract an STI was laughable; the rules of biology simply didn’t apply to me. But at some point, I simply encountered a person who had the herpes simplex virus, and that person gave the virus to me.
The drama of my initial diagnosis aside, it was an unremarkable event in the grand scheme of things. Two-thirds of the world’s population have HSV-1, and now I was part of that two-thirds. Herpes taught me that I was not the exception. I was the rule.
Humans like to think about viruses as the consequence of immoral and irresponsible behavior because it gives us the illusion of control—that if we do everything right, we’ll be safe. In reality, viruses inevitably spread when you have a large population concentrated in one area. When that same population has never been taught how to protect themselves effectively from airborne disease and lacks access to basic health care, the conditions are set for a dangerous new virus to wreak havoc.
But those circumstances are still created by people: by our leaders who invest in preparing for pandemics (or don’t), by a health insurance system that prioritizes profit over public good. Our myths about who gets sick and who doesn’t prevent us from looking at the systems that shape our health in the first place. They’re a distraction that focuses on individual rather than structural choices.
That isn’t to say that individual choices don’t matter. They do. By practicing social distancing, wearing a mask, getting tested for COVID-19 and generally erring on the side of caution, you can do a lot to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
Every choice we make carries a certain amount of risk with it, and if we choose to take a risk, we need to take it with full awareness of the stakes. You can still consciously decide that a certain risk is worth taking — like a walk in the park with a masked friend — as long as you understand the potential impact it can have on your health and the health of others around you.
It’s when you nonchalantly assume that everything will work out just fine that you run into danger. And humans are awful at calculating risk.
It bears repeating, over and over again, for as long as it takes to sink in and change the way we think:
Your wedding is not the exception.
Your clique of friends is not the exception.
Your mildly sanitized gym is not the exception.
Your traditional Thanksgiving dinner with your entire extended family is not the exception.
When it comes to viruses, you are the rule.
Viruses do not care who we are. Viruses do not exist to exact karmic punishment. They are not agents of destiny or markers of character. They are not concerned with our petty human stories about who matters and who doesn’t. To COVID-19, we are just bodies.
The great irony to me about COVID-19 is that the very people who accuse me of irresponsibly contracting an STI are often the same people who protest having to wear a face mask. Talking about “personal responsibility” is all well and good when it comes to regulating the sexual behavior of women and minorities, but being required to put a scrap of cotton across your mouth and nose to protect others from a deadly illness is a step too far. How dare you require that I sacrifice my physical comfort, my freedom, in order to keep others safe?
It’s the same faulty logic that selfish lovers use when they refuse to wear a condom: “I am not a risk to you, I am safe, and this feels better for me.”
This is where the failure to calculate risk is connected to privilege. The more privileged you are, the better access to health care that you have, the more secure and safe your occupation is…. typically, the worse you are at understanding that your actions have consequences for others. Privilege insulates us from the harm of our actions.
While privilege won’t always protect you from contracting a virus, it will impact your odds of survival. Just as I easily received the medication I needed to manage my herpes outbreak, the privileged people I know who contracted COVID have also easily received care for it. They may live with chronic side effects, but they’re insured. They get to keep breathing.
Privilege blinds us to the risks we face and then shields us when simple math catches up to us. Privilege does not make us exceptional, but it softens the blow of biological reality. Meanwhile, people of color, frontline workers, folks with pre-existing conditions, the elderly, incarcerated individuals, and the uninsured face death—or a life burdened with medical debt—because they don’t have the same choices or protections.
There is a point where ignorance crosses over into selfishness. We are at that point. If you are reading this essay, you already know the danger of COVID-19. You know which behaviors are risky and which are relatively safe. You cannot blame the conflicting advice from the CDC for your confusion. You have all the information you need to calculate risk. You just have to slow down and commit to thinking your actions through.
You need to wear a mask. Don’t travel for the holidays. Cancel your Thanksgiving plans. When you’re having socially distanced drinks with friends and you start to get comfortable and think, “surely I can relax a bit, these are good people,” remember that they aren’t special, and neither are you.
We are all sacrificing so much, and it hurts, but every careless action you take could be the one that catches up to you. And if not to you, then to your parents, or your teacher, or your coworker, or your waiter.
As the New York Times editorial board put it, “Low risk is not the same as no risk, and when it comes to the coronavirus, all risk is ultimately shared. The danger is not individual — it’s collective.”
Sacrifice, humility and caution are the best defenses we have against COVID-19. Are you making use of them?
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