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Has the coronavirus meme culture gone too far?

Cover Image | Source: Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic rattled us when it brought us our first national lockdown in March 2020. Not many of us would have guessed that in 2021, almost a year later, we’d still be in the same position. Covid-19 turned our lives upside down, however, if humans are good for anything, it’s adapting. Our flexibility is our greatest tool. So, when we were told we couldn’t leave our homes, we turned to our screens. And thus, began the bombardment of memes. Memes about self-isolation, memes about wearing masks and sanitising, memes about life on Zoom and Chloe Ting. It’s clear that when things go south, human beings will always find ways to laugh about it. We did it when Boris was elected, we did it when ‘World War 3’ almost broke out this time last year, and ultimately, when the pandemic put a halt on everyday life, we did it again.

Meme | Source: @wallofcomedy

What’s so funny about Covid?

Of course, the obvious explanation for creating Covid-related memes is that we all need a laugh. Adjusting to life in this pandemic has been a long and difficult ordeal - one that the entire world has endured and continues to endure, therefore the continuous stream of memes circulating around the globe is to be expected. In fact, the only positive about the pandemic is that it brought us closer together online. According to the Q2 2020 data report published by the Global Web Index (GWI), “the crisis has encouraged consumers to look to their wider communities for support, as people have felt as comfortable sharing what they’re going through in the public sphere as they have with immediate friends and family”. For the first time in forever, we could all collectively joke about something that could make many people laugh… that everyone could relate to, all the way from Canada to Russia and from the UK to Thailand. As there wasn’t much to do during lockdown except be on our phones, Covid memes inevitably skyrocketed. These relatable comments reassured us that we weren’t alone in our suffering and reminded us that there were still things that could make us smile.

Meme | Source: @wallofcomedy

Humour is undeniably a form of escapism and it has long been accepted as one of many coping strategies in the face of trauma. In fact, dark humour is used in more crises than one would expect. Alex Borgella, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fort Lewis College notes: “This type of humour is typically found alongside death and destruction, amongst doctors and nurses in hospital ERs and oncology units, soldiers in the trenches during wars, wartime refugees, first responders, and many others and serves an important, albeit a seemingly callous, function: to keep spirits high, stress low, and maintain a sense of humanity where none seems to exist’. It’s clear, therefore, that the dark side of meme culture isn't anything new to us. People have been using memes to deal with trauma for almost a decade... it’s the butt of the jokes that have changed. It’s interesting to note that most of us weren’t offended at the insensitivity of the memes. Possibly because most of us did not die from the virus or lose a loved one to it. For those whose lives were devastated by it, jokes about the virus may seem insensitive, poorly timed or tactless.

Meme | Source: @wallofcomedy

Where do we draw the line?

I guess the question that’s worth asking is: where do we draw the line? With the growth of social media, everything that we put out there can reach anyone, regardless of their background or location. Does that mean we should be censoring our content? If people are offended, do they have a right to judge others who aren’t? And when thousands of people are mentally struggling, dying or losing loved ones, should we be laughing about it? With all these questions floating through our minds, deciding which jokes are socially acceptable can be more or less impossible. However, as Peter McGraw, behavioural economist and director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder suggested, “It’s easy to make jokes about getting to the end of Netflix because you’re quarantined. It’s another thing to make jokes about a lack of respirators.”

Meme | Source: @imjustbait

What I found interesting when browsing through the comments of some of the more provocative memes was the variety of reasons people gave for being triggered. Some felt it was not the time for jokes considering that the pandemic is still an ongoing situation. Some felt there was no time and place for jokes about a fatal virus, full stop. Others felt, much like McGraw, that only certain kinds of jokes - those that were directly trivialising human suffering - were unacceptable.

McGraw does have a point - certain jokes seemed slightly too callous. However, one negative of social media is that censorship is rarely imposed. In other words, people get away with saying almost anything on social media platforms. Despite many comments expressing real and pained reactions to memes about the pandemic, it is safe to assume that this will not stop them coming. A harsh reality is that insensitive memes will continue to circulate around the globe. Some may offend us, and some may make us chuckle; some should never have been created, but were. Everyone has different boundaries of sensitivity and at the end of the day, the variety of content on social media caters to all tastes of humour. Wherever I saw a comment criticizing a Covid meme, I would see another which was laughing at it. How can we ‘draw the line’ if we all disagree on where it should be drawn? More often than not, the most controversial memes prevail on social media; this is the high price we pay for the freedom of expression that we all enjoy.

Moving forward

Support and community, both in real life and online, helps those affected the worst by the pandemic and this is something that has also grown in lockdown. In some cases, the pandemic really brought us together. According to the Global Web Index, research across the US and the UK indicates that 57% of consumers say social media has helped them feel less lonely during the outbreak. This reveals the importance of social media for sustaining our mental health in times like these. Now more than ever, people are turning to social media as a source of companionship and upliftment. The emergence of the coronavirus meme culture does not necessarily mean we have not understood the gravity of the situation. If anything, it is a sign that we are all too familiar with the loneliness this pandemic has brought and are trying to escape it through humour. As a society, our compassion for the ones suffering the most shows in our actions and our words: From donating PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to the NHS to cooking meals for frontline staff, running errands for those self-isolating and reserving hotel rooms for rough sleepers - no one can say that we didn’t look out for each other this year.

At this moment, the future is unforeseeable, but one thing we all know for certain is that we all want this stifling period to end so life can return to normal. At the end of the day, laughter is the best medicine; we’re all finding ways to cope, whether it is through dark memes or not.

‘No one knows what COVID-19 is really doing to us all, so we might as well try to laugh with so many quality Corona memes floating around the internet.’

- @TheCoronaMemes

Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.

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