Life

How the Stories We Tell About COVID Can Help—or Hinder—Vaccination Efforts

A year into the pandemic, a powerful “folklore” has already taken hold.

Cartoon satirizing a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing cowpox vaccine being administered to frightened young women and cows emerging from different parts of people's bodies
“The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” published June 12, 1802, in London. James Gillray/Library of Congress

What kinds of tales will you tell, 30 years from now, about what COVID was like? What kinds of COVID stories are people already telling today, and how are those stories affecting their choices, inside this pandemic—the choice to get vaccinated or not, the choice to wear a mask or not?

Andrea Kitta, a folklorist who wrote a book called Vaccinations and Public Concern in History, studies the evolution of the stories that people tell one another about medicine, diseases, and vaccines. Kitta is now working on collecting COVID folklore, through interviews and lurking in comment sections, to find out which stories about the disease—and about the COVID vaccine—are sticking with people.

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We spoke recently about bodily purity, bleach-drinking, and the Kiss of Death. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rebecca Onion: What are some COVID legends and stories, and how do they relate to previous bits of medical folklore?

Andrea Kitta: With COVID legends, right now, so many of the things that are being passed around show this really fundamental distrust in medicine. A lot of people aren’t thinking that when they’re telling a story they heard, but it taps into something in their belief system.

One thing that’s pretty much universal is this whole idea that there is something that you can do personally to prevent COVID, or that the cure to COVID is somewhere in your house. For a while there, that was everywhere. There was a viral post going around talking about different breathing techniques—just do this one thing to prevent COVID, eat this thing, or breathe this way, or take more vitamin C. This is an empowering idea because it makes you feel like you’re doing something, especially in an uncontrollable situation. From the point of view of medical folklore, it’s nothing new to hear this—same story, over and over, the idea that you can cure something with household objects. You can clean everything with the bleach you have under your counter—or, God forbid, drink bleach!

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Oh, yes. I’m old enough to remember that one similar bit of advice!

Or, you know, you hear the same stuff over and over again—drink lemon juice and hot water. Or, if you grew up Eastern European like I did, it’s garlic. Garlic cures every infection!

What about skepticism—belief that a disease isn’t as bad as the government is telling us? Is that a pattern in medical folklore?

Yes, if you look back to the 1918 flu pandemic, there were people saying, “This isn’t that bad.” And vaccine refusal goes back to the start of vaccines—the number of times Edward Jenner was burned in effigy! There’s a really famous cartoon with Jenner injecting people with vaccines, and they start growing all these cow parts off of them. That’s sort of the same thing as people thinking that the COVID vaccine is going to change their DNA.

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Yes! You mention that vaccine skepticism in the past was often tied to the inclusion of animal parts in the vaccine production process—I remember reading about that when it came to incubating diphtheria antitoxin in horses. We don’t make vaccines that way anymore, but the mRNA delivery method used by some of the COVID vaccines seems to be inspiring some of the same kinds of fears. But slightly changed, as you say.

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Yes. It’s a new way to think of the same fear. The idea is that our bodies are pure, and the skin, especially, is a barrier. So we don’t want anything crossing that barrier. And that’s why vaccines are fundamentally terrifying. They cross that barrier into our bodies, and they don’t go into our bodies like a pill does. Everyone has kind of a basic understanding of how the digestive system works—we put food in it every day—but when you get a shot, where does it go? People don’t think about it, because why would you? You only need vaccines a few times in your life, compared to everyday eating.

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And now there’s a brand-new vaccine, and you might remember the last vaccine that came out, maybe the HPV vaccine, and everyone kept talking about “Oh, it was 10 years of research! It’s safe!” But how did we get this COVID vaccine so fast?

So there’s this sort of sense of time, the lack of understanding of the vaccine, all of that kind of congeals into this disbelief. This isn’t something I should do. It’s too fast. It’s too different. It has the term mRNA in it, which sounds a lot like DNA! That’s why I like the word congeal to describe it, because these ideas are in your head and they work together and come together to create this hesitation.

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I’m very interested in the connection between the conspiracy mindset and vaccines as an idea. I think of the anti-vaccination mindset as almost a religious or metaphysical one. I feel like some of the suspicion of vaccines falls along the lines of “It’s too good to be true.” It’s something that science gave us that is “letting us off the hook” in a way—making it too easy for people to live.

Yes! I mean—vaccination is probably the greatest thing that medicine has ever given us. It’s amazing. If you think about child mortality even a hundred years ago, you would have had a whole bunch of kids, because most of them wouldn’t make it to the age of 6! That was just everyday life. And we have totally changed that. And for some people, I think that does create suspicion.

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And it’s interesting—the miraculousness of vaccines also had another effect. For some people, when I talk to them about COVID vaccines, they expect the vaccine to do things that it’s not capable of doing yet, or we just don’t know yet whether they can. People who say, I’ll get my vaccine and do whatever I want. And I’m like, No, no! We don’t know about transmission yet! We don’t know how long it’s going to last; you might need a booster; you might need to get it every year. We just don’t know yet. And they look at me like, Why can’t I just take it once and fix everything? If you’re not in the middle of this, thinking about it all the time, it can be confusing.

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That’s a really interesting perspective on this, because that expectation you describe is almost like the result of pro-vaccination cultural stories. Not sure if it qualifies as folklore, but I think about the movie Contagion and how the vaccine fixed everything in that movie, quite often. The vaccine came out, and all of their troubles were over!

Right! If they made a movie about the vaccines we have, it wouldn’t be a good movie. It’d be a terrible movie. We’re living through a terrible movie!

I think about that all time. I think about how the disease we have almost isn’t dramatic enough, isn’t visible enough, to compel respect. Even though it’s killed so many!

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Right! That’s why I keep telling people that they have to tell their COVID stories, because that’s what makes it dramatic, makes it stick with us. So when I ask people, What are the stories you’ve heard that bother you most, about this disease? It’s always the stories about nurses holding iPads so that people can say goodbye to their family members. These are the stories that really get to people.

I’m wondering whether, in talking to people, there are any particular patient narratives that have changed their minds or behavior. I have one friend who became a COVID long-hauler, for instance, and that really changed my entire relationship with this pandemic. Are there any narratives that seem to be sticking with people more than others? Would you call them “cautionary tales,” professionally?

Yes, that’s what we call them! There are stories about young people who died that stick with people—the ones we didn’t expect to die. But the long-haulers, yes, they change our understanding of the pandemic because a lot of them are in the 40-to-60-year age range. And their experience really highlights that we don’t know what the virus is going to do, once it’s in our bodies. And that’s something that sticks with people, especially if I explain and compare it to the chickenpox virus, and the way that virus stays in your body and recurs as shingles sometimes, later on—that’s something people are familiar with. But for the most part the long-term effects are not really something people think about or mention yet.

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I wrote a book about a legend in medical folklore called “The Kiss of Death,” which is about stories of deadly kisses. There’s a chapter in there about people that go to visit people in the hospital, and it’s usually, like, a grandchild that kisses the grandparents, and the grandparents transmit something. The child dies, but the grandparents survive, and that’s the big dramatic end to the story. And there were a bunch of nursing students I interviewed that told me that they had been told, Don’t ever kiss the babies when you work because you can give them something and then they’ll die. This was something that stuck with all of them, because that’s a natural thing to want to do when you hold something tiny and small—you want to kiss it. This is dramatic—a loving thing that ends up killing someone—the exact opposite of what you want to have happen.

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Those are the kind of stories that stick with people. With COVID, we have some stories like this—nurses and physicians who give it to family members, all those people who got sick from the one wedding in Maine. That’s the level of story that sticks—it was this celebratory event, and people died because of it. The best intentions will lead you astray. I think that’s what we’re going to end up seeing, when this is over—stories about that moment of breakdown, needing human connection, and that being the thing that hurts somebody. Whether they’re true or not, those will be the stories that stick with us.

You’re reminding me of the Eli Saslow interview in the Washington Post, with a woman who described trying to weather COVID in her attic, and then at one point she was very low with it, and her mother came to her and demanded that she hug her, for comfort—and then the woman’s mother died of it. I’ll remember that one forever.

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Wow. Yes, I think we’ll be talking about that kind of story 50 years from now.

I wanted to close by asking you about utility. I notice in your book about vaccines, you offer explicit advice to public health officials—tools for them to use to increase people’s willingness to take vaccines. Is that a way that medical folklore frames its mission? As part of, I don’t know, public health communication or science communication?

I think there’s a lot of ways that folklore can come and help out. We understand the importance of narrative. I always tell people, especially when they say, How do I convince my patients to get vaccines? I say, Tell them a story about something that happened to you. This is a huge thing because doctors don’t like to get too personal, they want to keep professional distance—but no, they need you to be a person in that moment. I think nurses really excel at this because they have a different kind of interaction with patients.

With COVID, I think you could see a case for health care workers saying, Listen, I had a patient, and this is what happened to them. They were a healthy person, and then they weren’t fine. This is what happened, and it made me feel really bad. Talk about how you feel during this too, because that’s what you know. Those are the stories that really get you—the ones where someone’s talking about their emotional response to a situation. That’s a tool that’s so underused.

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