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The Invisibility of COVID-19

Why is it so hard to picture COVID-19?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Feb 28, 2021 12:00 AMMar 1, 2021 4:38 PM
SARS CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) emerges from the surface of a cell cultured in the lab. (Credit: NIAID/NIH)
SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) emerges from the surface of a cell cultured in the lab. (Credit: NIAID/NIH)


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Eleven months ago, at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus, I wrote a post proposing that COVID-19 had spread so quickly because it was not disgusting enough.

I noted that you can't take a picture of COVID-19 symptoms, unlike many other diseases such as smallpox or measles.

I suggested that if COVID-19 caused visible symptoms, such as a rash, people would be more afraid and disgusted by the disease, which could have helped slow the spread.

Now, nearly a year later, it's striking to me that COVID-19 remains an essentially invisible disease. If you try to picture COVID-19 in your mind, I'll bet you think of something like this:

COVID Google Images

Here we see COVID-19 as a little ball covered in red spikes. These images are the top three hits in Google image search for "COVID-19" (for the United States).

But the iconic spiky ball isn't a picture of the disease COVID-19. It's a picture of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

If you scroll down the image search hits for COVID-19, you'll see lots more spiky balls, a few infographics and photos of doctors, scientists and ordinary people getting vaccines and wearing masks in public.

What you won't find in the COVID-19 image search are pictures of people who actually have COVID-19. Try it.

The closest thing I found, and this is about 30 rows down, is this image:

COVID patient imagery

According to Wikipedia, this is a picture of a nurse treating a COVID-19 patient, but the patient isn't shown.

So I think it's fair to say that COVID-19 is an invisible disease. We all know it exists in the abstract, but it's hard to picture it.

The situation is very different for other diseases. I won't show the images here as they're not pleasant, but try Google image searching smallpox, measles or anthrax. The top hits show the disease itself, and once you've seen them, you'll forever know what those diseases look like.

You might say that those are all diseases with skin manifestations, which are easy to depict visually. But rash-free diseases can also be visible diseases. Try searching for norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea.

The following images are all in my first few rows of norovirus hits:

Norovirus Imagery

While these aren't photos of people with norovirus, these cartoons vividly depict the symptoms, and emphasize the disgusting aspects of the disease (body fluids).

Overall, COVID-19 lacks either a rash or body-fluid related symptoms, and I believe that has made it invisible. If COVID-19 were more easily visible, it would be more easily feared, and the course of the pandemic might have been different.

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