The World Is Addicted to Pandemic Porn
The insatiable appetite for disaster information is psychologically understandable—and politically dangerous.
The coronavirus pandemic is a global catastrophe that has killed tens of thousands of people and brought misery and pain to many more, including those who are now under lockdown and curfew. But, as a public spectacle, there is plenty of evidence that people have found it riveting.
I’m no exception. When I first started hearing about the numbers of COVID-19 deaths in Italy, I felt a wave of horror and sadness that left me winded and confused—I have family in Italy and feel a deep affection for the country. But it also stirred in me an appetite for more coronavirus-related news, and every day since Italy went into lockdown on March 9 I have religiously visited the same webpage to see the daily updates of new COVID-19 deaths in the country.
I know that I am not alone: Most of the world seems hooked on coronavirus horror news right now, as traffic numbers at most news sites seem to attest. Where does this appetite come from, and what does it say about us?
The world often gets caught up in the spectacle of unpredictable threats, from the mass panic over Y2K to the Islamic State’s theater of barbarism. The coronavirus pandemic has given us a new larger-than-life monster to rail against and bond over with other horrified media consumers. It has also given us a global spectacle that makes all other reality TV seem superfluous and shallow by comparison, for this is the stuff of “Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales,” as the writer Paul Theroux recently put it. True life-and-death drama. And it is happening in real time, with no edits.
[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]
As with all monsters, many people are desperate to see the beast, but only from a safe distance. So they tune in daily to chart its havoc-wreaking progress. They fixate on the “curve” of its “exponential” evil. How many did it kill and infect there? When will it reach here? People quarrel over what to call it and who to blame for its despicable conception, marshaling in their favorite bêtes noires to carry the weight of culpability.
Some of those who have seen the beast up close or actually survived its ravages are only too eager to relay their experiences to journalists or in social media posts, and many of us are only too happy to immerse ourselves in these horrors. A cursory Google search for recent coronavirus-related news content reveals the following reports: “‘Like somebody was beating me like a piñata’: Chris Cuomo describes coronavirus battle” (Politico); “‘We’re a part of the spread’: flight attendant’s guilt over Covid-19” (the Guardian); “Coronavirus felt like the devil was in my body, fit and healthy 28-year-old mum warns young Brits” (the Sun); “‘It was like I’d swallowed glass’: Mother, 46, battling coronavirus describes horror symptoms” (Daily Mail).
I do not mean to criticize the sincerity or hardships of those who make or share these posts and stories. But there is something undeniably (if understandably) pornographic about the urge to reveal, in unsparing and microscopic detail, what the virus looks and feels like to countless strangers on the internet. There is also something unmistakably voyeuristic in wanting to see or read these frightening stories.
Of course, one could say that those who share such stories are performing a vital public service in raising awareness about the seriousness of the coronavirus, and that those who read or hear them are merely keeping themselves informed. But this doesn’t quite explain the seemingly insatiable appetite for sharing and consuming coronavirus catastrophe tales that contain little new practical information.
Few writers have thought more deeply about this subject than the late Susan Sontag, who observed, with piercing accuracy, that “the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.” What explains this impulse? Sontag alluded to several answers. One is related to insecurity: We wish to see or hear about something gruesome so as “to steel” ourselves “against weakness.” If we can’t even look at the Grim Reaper, we are unlikely to fare well against him when he comes knocking.
The other answer Sontag points to is far more unsettling: namely, the voyeuristic “satisfaction of knowing, This is not happening to me, I’m not ill, I’m not dying, I’m not trapped in a war.” The intellectual historian Karen Halttunen understood this as the secret pleasure of prizing our own good fortune that comes from the comparison we make between ourselves and the person who suffers.
But what about the desire to reveal one’s suffering to anonymous others? According to the sociologist Frank Furedi, who has written widely about the rise of therapy culture, this is “inextricably linked with the erosion of the boundary between the private and public,” whereby privacy has lost its “positive authority.” Furedi told me that public coronavirus confessionals are just another iteration of “survivor tales,” where privations are commodified as a means to buy attention, relevance, and status.
At the moment, it is hard to read a newspaper or watch television news without coming across some new horror in the unfolding coronavirus story. Indeed, we are only but months into the pandemic, and it already feels like a saturation point has been reached. What does all this exposure do to us?
Sontag thought deeply about this question, too. In On Photography, published in 1977, she worried that repeated exposure to images of suffering risks corrupting our moral conscience, shrinking our sympathy. We become overloaded, numb, desensitized to the pain of others: “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more—and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” Elaborating further, she wrote: “The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more.”
Sontag later came to doubt the force of this observation, but it still stands as a stark warning. The danger is that with each new COVID-19 death toll, dutifully updated every 24 hours by our governments and news organizations, we become detached from the cruel and painful realities behind the numbers and deadened to the suffering around us. The danger is even more acute in our current social media age, when many of us are never far away from a smartphone or computer screen.
It is idle to think that much can be done to ward off this danger, so deeply rooted is our desire for catastrophic news and our proneness to be distracted from our other duties and interests in order to assiduously follow it. And we may indeed persuade ourselves into thinking that we are obliged to do so. But we should also feel obliged to reflect on what psychological and political costs this indulgence might already be imposing.