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by Kevin Bardosh
Thursday, 10
August 2023
Explainer
18:00

Covid alarmism returns with the Eris variant

The media is fuelling fear over an impending summer wave
by Kevin Bardosh
Fear of Covid has fuelled the development of a new diagnostic category: Covidphobia. Credit: Getty

Each season now comes with a new variant of Covid alarmism, fuelling media clickbait and ranging from the hyperbolic to the hypothetical.

According to the Guardian, the UK is “nearly flying blind” into a Covid wave this autumn. A summer spike is expected, by the estimation of the BBC. The New York Times tells us that “Covid didn’t take a summer vacation” and that it is “time for a refresher” on self-protection. Cases are up 55% in New York City, warns the New York Post, while the LA Times this week advocates a return to the wearing of masks.


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Each new mutation (the latest is EG.5.1 or “Eris”) brings with it a fresh wave of media attention. We are reminded to maintain precautions indefinitely: boosters, disinfecting door knobs, N95 respirators and, lest we forget, paying attention to indoor airflow before deciding on a restaurant.

Yet these same media articles also tell us that Covid continues to be mild with no change in severity, making it harder and harder to distinguish from the common cold. The newest Eris variant mostly causes a sore throat and runny nose, and yet the seasonal media cycle of respiratory alarmism continues. 

The public is encouraged to follow these viral variants like football matches, watching the scoreboard and adjusting their safety paraphernalia accordingly. But what is driving all this media hype?

It was clear during the pandemic that the press struggled to communicate uncertainty, instead maximising fear and causing moral panics. In this context, basic science communication standards were often poor, and this is reflected in the media framing of each new variant.

New technologies also play a role. Genomic sequencing, digital technologies and publicly accessible databases provide an illusion of omniscience and demand for real-time data. Genomic data, in particular, is responsible for the never-ending Greek acronyms and sub-acronyms. Last week, 17% of Covid cases in the US were, so we are told, due to the new Eris variant.

But genomic surveillance is not like weather forecasting. It tells us little to nothing about changes in disease severity. It is labour-intensive to track Covid cases, not something we do with the flu. Yet each new variant or reported percentage jump in cases precipitates a new media wave. 

The public likes to consume Covid news, which has consistently been associated with declines in mental health. Fear of the virus has also been vastly exaggerated by the majority of the public, and has shown to be associated with political identity in the US. This has fuelled the development of a new diagnostic category: Covidphobia. Note the young American hipsters with N95 respirators in European airports this summer. 

All of this makes more sense when we appreciate the continued resistance to the concept of herd immunity. A Washington Post article about the Eris variant claims that “the coronavirus has not disappeared. With the advent of successful vaccinations and better social management, however, it has waned.” As with most mainstream articles there is nothing about the role of mass infection, herd immunity, immune memory or the epidemiological reality of seasonal endemicity.

Getting a cold is never fun, especially for the elderly and vulnerable who disproportionately suffer. As Covid continues its journey towards being another endemic virus, the public should expect more seasonal waves of alarmism. I doubt they will be eliminated anytime soon. 

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

 As Covid continues its journey towards being another endemic virus, the public should expect more seasonal waves of alarmism. I doubt they will be eliminated anytime soon.

The alarms? The public? Journalists?
If the latter were eliminated, it’d take care of the first.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Given that the BBC don’t do journalism any more, you would need to add “normalising worst-case scenarios” to the list.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Barton
Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You have spared me the trouble of posting in my own right.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 month ago

Like the majority of the public, I haven’t given a shit about covid for a couple of years now. Not going to start again now.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

I never gave a shit about Covid and claim credit for that

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 month ago

It was very satisfactory to be the outsider at the beginning of the pandemic and then watch as everyone moved over to join me. It is also fun to watch the MSM bang the Covid alarmism drum today with literally no one caring the slightest.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Moi non plus.

James Quinnell
James Quinnell
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

D’accord

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

Gets on my nerves… I have seen alarmist headlines popping up all over. The grift continues.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

This article is the first I’ve heard of it.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Last year I had Original Flavor Covid, which made me sick as a dog with a fever for about twelve hours. Today I’ve maybe got this new Caffeine-Free Covid, because I’ve got a scratchy throat and I’m sneezing a lot. And that’s it. If this is the future of Covid…

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

You might get the PSLC strain next. “Public Sector Long Covid” is spreading like wildfire.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Even among those who never had COVID, or so I am told. Remarkable. I’m diagnosing lazyitis.

D Oliver
D Oliver
1 month ago

If only more people sought help for their Covid phobia! 2 years of validation from the media and online echo chambers have convinced most of them that their fear is rational. Very sad, all told.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago
Reply to  D Oliver

People seeking help for problems they should find the strength to resolve themselves is how we got to ‘Covidphobia’ in the first place. The media, the government, the schools all promote this agenda of convincing grown men and women that they are helpless, frightened children, not responsible for their own lives.

D Oliver
D Oliver
1 month ago
Reply to  Studio Largo

Come off it! Bottling stuff up and “solving it yourself” isn’t how real life works. Family, friends etc provide a sounding board. It doesn’t have to be a therapist if that’s your issue.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago
Reply to  D Oliver

100% agree that we need people close to us as a sounding board but we still have our own problems that in the end only we can solve. My problem is partly with therapists, yes, but more broadly the media, government and other self-styled experts who justify the existence of an increasingly authoritarian culture by insisting that they know what’s best for us.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones
1 month ago

Nobody reads the Guardian, I hardly ever watch the BBC and the first I heard of this was via UnHerd.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

‘If it bleeds it leads’ the old mantra about daily news and journalism. if it wasn’t Covid the old Daily Mail et al would be whipping up some other catastrophe wouldn’t they. It’s what sells, esp for an aging population when it comes to stories about things like the virus or some other health or societal scare.
I agree the risks are overstated and the fear generated a real problem, esp if gets to a tipping point and politicians feel they have to do something or get lambasted in the same media. But let’s not just focus on Covid if we are serious about this general theme. Let’s be aware there are many other policy distortions created by how the media can behave and then how we react.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

I read the Mail and it really increases its sales by investigative Journalism as has with the Wuhan lab release (Ian Birrell) and of course the cabal of left wing scientists discussing in secret how to let the Chinese off their stupidity. Yes I have heard of Eris but again from the MSN who ban any comments on Covid.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

I think the “aging” are far less afraid than the young ones.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

No safe spaces needed.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

Hmm. This is news to me. Guess I’m not plugged in sufficiently.

James S.
James S.
1 month ago

Appreciate the next to last paragraph. As an MD, I find it amazing that herd immunity and the role of a normal immune system in dealing with infections such as COVID still are at most given lip service, while “social management” and the next round of endless boosters are all that the media and public health “experts” seem to have to offer.

Moreover, I think that the evolution of COVID and its ability to sidestep the (money making) vaccines and boosters demonstrates just why vaccination development for coronaviruses and other common respiratory viruses has been pretty much a losing game.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago

Eris – the Greek goddess of strife and discord. How appropriate.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago

Pope: Catholic; Bears: Woods; Media: Fearmongering; Government: Control.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

Kevin, I had not heard about it until you mentioned it, so perhaps it is you who is spreading panic.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

PS
I didn’t really read the article.

D Oliver
D Oliver
1 month ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Read the second paragraph alone in that case.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

I follow covid news daily because I’m interested in how society responds to this virus over time. Today’s Unherd article is exactly right. There has recently been significant coverage of the increase in covid cases due to the latest strain. Very little coverage of the fact most of the cases are mild. The LA Times even mooted the idea of returning to mandatory masking, renewed emphasis on work from home, etc. My sense is most people are tuning this news out, but never underestimate the power of the covid alarmists.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Perhaps in the States. In the UK this is the first I have heard of it.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

When is the Pfizer jab for this one going to be available, and how many boosters will I need?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

One valuable remedy is always to refer to this disease as “Wuhan Flu” when in discussion with public officials.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago

Until this article, I had not read a COVID article in a year; tired of the scam thrust upon us by the media, government and pharnaceuticals.
The reality is coronavirus is endemic, so deal with it; which in my case is to ignore it. I have had it twice, pre and post vaccination, something to sneeze at, that is all.
Just follow the money, the media to sell a story and pharmaceuticals to push a forever vaccination that only lasts 3 months and does not prevent infection.
I recommend reading the last paragraph of the article again. To quote the Who, “don’t get fooled again”.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

In other words, like every other plague in human history, COVID has led to paranoia, fear, finger-pointing, and public mistrust in authority and in one another. Journalists continue to express shock and dismay at what shouldn’t be even mildly surprising to anyone, and the wheels on the bus go round…

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 month ago

“Covid alarmism”?
No, this is just your right-wing straw-man click-bait.
Here’s how the Irish media today reported on it:
“New Covid variant Eris not as severe as previous strains”https://www.rte.ie/news/2023/0811/1399239-covid-variant-eris/
Hardly alarmist, for heaven’s sake. Do calm down.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

And the reports in the LA Times advocating masks?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago

If the author had had something reliable to say about what the actual risks of new COVID variants are and why (presumably he thinks they are low), this would have been interesting. As it is it is just another smug echo chamber post about how anybody who worries about this disease is an idiot, and all those who agree with him are wise and smart. Could Unherd cut down on this halo-polishing and replace it with, like, some actual news about COVID? Some us might even be willing to be convinced.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

But anyone who worries about Wuhan Flu IS an idiot, and everyone who agrees with the author about this IS, if not wise and smart, at least sane and sensible.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Since E.G.5.1 has only just started to gain a foothold in the evolutionary landscape there is only speculation, right now, as to what its effects might be.
Eric Topol has a nice even handed, up to date, easy to read review of where we are at here :
https://erictopol.substack.com/p/the-virus-is-learning-new-tricks
Frankly, Unherd is the last place on earth I would go for sensible information about any disease or sciencey subject.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The news Ramus is that it is endemic, so deal with it. Granted we do not have statistics regarding morbidity and mortality of the new strain, but remember statistics to date have not represented the facts and grossly over estimate the seriousness of COVID.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
27 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You’re right, can’t be too careful now, can we? Let’s bring back mask mandates, social distancing and put everyone in the world (except for the officials and experts, of course) under house arrest all over again. Only this time let’s do it the right way like they did in China.