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I Can’t Stop Thinking About This Subreddit That Collects COVID-19 Deniers Who Then Suffer the Worst

A laptop computer and superimposed posts from the Reddit forum 'Covid19 Ate my Face'

On Reddit, there’s a forum called r/COVIDAteMyFace. It’s a sort of spin-off of r/LeopardsAteMyFace, which is a repository for news steeped in the repercussions of someone’s actions. “Revel in the schadenfreude anytime someone has a sad because they’re suffering consequences from something they voted for or supported or wanted to impose on other people,” reads the r/LeopardsAteMyFace description.

“Leopards Ate My Face” is a reference to a viral tweet from author Adrian Bott (@cavalorn) in October 2016, following the Brexit vote: “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.” I’ve been subscribed to r/LeopardsAteMyFace for a while, because, well, there is a certain kind of schadenfreude that results from seeing people realize that the terrible policies they vote for—often with callous or intentional disregard for other people—can hurt them, too.

But r/COVIDAteMyFace feels very different. After a friend sent me the link yesterday, I read through the posts there for hours and felt only sadness, shame for America, and a white-hot rage at those who knowingly peddle disinformation about the pandemic, along with the social media networks (primarily Facebook, but also increasingly places like TikTok) that have allowed awful COVID-19 memes and outright lies to spread.

Even after Facebook vowed to combat disinformation back in February, their own recent reports have shown that the most popular posts on the network cast doubt on vaccination. Many of the anti-mask and anti-vax Facebook screenshots shared by people r/COVIDAteMyFace were posted just days ago.

Again and again and again throughout the entries on r/COVIDAteMyFace, we see the same patterns. Someone has spent months sharing Facebook memes and status updates about medical “freedom,” not being a vaccine “lab rat,” conspiracies about the vaccine, relentlessly mocking apparent go-to boogeyman Dr. Fauci, the disparagement of masks and mask mandates, and more.

Alongside these screenshots, there are then follow-up posts from the same people or their family members reporting that they are now in serious condition in the hospital with COVID-19 and usually asking for prayers and “prayer warriors.” More often than not, there’s an additional post reporting that the COVID-19 denier and/or anti-masker/anti-vaxxer has died. With the rise of the wildly infectious Delta variant, the number of cases like this has skyrocketed.

There’s no satisfaction to derive from these posts. They’re a vast human tragedy told in the arc of screengrabs from social media. The subreddit also hosts article after article recounting further tragedies: the anti-vax parents who died weeks apart, leaving behind four children; a 34-year-old father who died after wanting to wait a year because social media made him feel uncertain about the vaccine; unvaccinated pregnant people and babies dying; endless testimonies from those hospitalized or on their deathbeds expressing regret that they did not get the vaccine.

If I read another story about people begging for the vaccine when they’re being intubated, I may scream. The pandemic was already a nightmare, but the rampant ignorance and active campaigns to make people afraid of highly effective, widely researched vaccines or to push back against the simple act of wearing a mask feel criminal at this point.

Who is responsible for making anyone think and believe that “this isn’t that real of a virus”? And why do people continue to believe this 18 months in, with more than 4 million people dead?

I am usually in diametric political opposition to many of the people whose stories are on r/COVIDAteMyFace. I am furious at anti-vaxxers and opportunistic politicians instituting laws against basic health protocols for political clout. But I grieve the death of every person lost to COVID-19—and every loss of human life is a catastrophe with ripple effects far beyond that person.

These people were often beloved spouses, lovers, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends, coworkers. Some were primary caregivers and breadwinners who will leave despair in their wake. They had vibrant lives that went far beyond political parties and bad memes.

Losing someone that you love, especially at a young age, is one of the most difficult things that will ever happen to those left behind. I know this personally. But I cannot even begin to imagine how it would feel to grapple with the knowledge that your loved one’s death could have been prevented with a free and immensely effective vaccine. Even from the outside, that knowledge feels crushing. Worldwide, at least two million children at minimum have lost a parent or a grandparent caregiver to COVID-19. It’s unfathomable to imagine the suffering that people will carry with them.

r/COVIDAteMyFace serves an important purpose. It documents for posterity how America’s response to COVID-19 went completely off the rails, and yes, it demonstrates how personal actions can have devastating consequences. If scrolling through the tragedies there makes even one “vaccine-hesitant” person get the vaccine, it will have served a great purpose.

Some of the commenters on this forum seem to revel in the outcomes as anti-vaxxers getting their due, and that can feel ghoulish. Yet many are also exhausted at fighting disinformation for more than a year, and rightfully upset about the impact COVID-19 deniers who then get COVID-19 can have on others. It can feel hard to extend sympathy to people who seem to be choosing Facebook medical advice over the combined endorsement of the majority of doctors and scientists around the globe.

Beyond the ramifications of death or serious illness to those in the person’s circle, these people can also infect others in their disregard for health measures. They can be responsible for more deaths or horrifying cases. They’re impacting the ability of businesses and offices to reopen. They’re making schools dangerous for kids, many of whom cannot yet be vaccinated. And the trauma experienced by the healthcare professionals who must care for and try to save everyone involved is already at a disastrous crisis point.

There are no easy answers, but what is starkly revealed when reading through r/COVIDAteMyFace is just how much social media has influenced people’s opinions amid the crass politicization of an international medical emergency. Social media networks, alongside politicians against mask mandates and “news” outlets that push vaccine skepticism and virus conspiracy theories, all have blood on their hands. In America, a lot of initial blame can be laid squarely at the feet of Donald Trump and the GOP for their constant downplaying of the virus and pushback against masks. But Trump is gone now and the misinformation has only dug in its heels.

Were Dante to write a modern-day Divine Comedy, I think there’d be a special layer of hell in “Inferno” for those who broker in pandemic disinformation for fun or profit. I imagine it as an infinite pediatric COVID ward where the only people you can speak to are the souls of once-vehemently anti-vax right-wing radio hosts who have died.

If anyone should feel the ramifications of their actions right now, it’s those who pushed others into the realm of fear and paranoia. It was found that just 12 people were responsible for generating a majority of “misleading claims and outright lies” about the pandemic on social media. It’s wrenching to consider the countless people suffering the consequences.

(via Reddit, image: Pexels, r/COVIDAteMyFace)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.