What The Coronavirus Outbreak Means to America’s Teenagers


Angry-faced and hoodie-clad, the man lurches violently towards his target, a masked elderly Asian woman. Punches, kicks, and cries of “diseased bitch!” ensue before the video cuts off.

I first saw it on the Instagram story of a friend, who commented beneath the footage, “Racism does not cure diseases,” amidst a plethora of percentages, anecdotes, and further conscious ranting. 

On another friend’s Instagram story, however, a different caption: “LMAO,” in all caps. Boxing glove emojis. Teary-eyed laughing stickers.

Why the disparity?

As a teenager surrounded by hysteria about the outbreak, it has long been a policy of mine to leave “adult business to the adults” and lavish in the guarantee that there was nothing to be worried about; it would all clear up soon. But, along with the number of cases in my state, the idea that it may not simply “wash over” has grown from miniscule to unavoidable with swiftness that not many expected — within the past week, I have gotten text messages from friends reporting that their schools have closed down, worried sentiments of ‘I-hope-they-don’t-cancel-prom,” and various emails from supervisors offering animated hand-washing instructions.

This image has appeared in my inbox three times since mid-March.

The issue is indeed close to home.

For once, it is just as much of my problem as it is that of my parents. I cannot simply excuse myself from the dinner table – I am required to stay for what was once just ‘adult-talk’ to me. Rather than retreat to my room to get a jump on my homework, I must linger for the duration of our President’s address, lest I miss something that may change my life. And, instead of hitting the sheets at eleven, I am obligated to keep an eye on the evening newscast to see whether my school is cancelled (which, in this case, would incite more worry than joy).

But not all teens, I have noticed, react with the same drive to become knowledgeable. 

What compensates for this lack of knowledge?

For a good majority of my peers: humor.

The nature of this case directly reminded me of my generation’s reaction to World War Three rumors that arose after our country killed Iranian general Quassem Soleimani.

“If we think of World War III,” one teen told NBC News, “if we look into that, any of us could be really scared. So it helps us quell that uncertainty by trying to make light of it.”

In the same article, another teen says: “I think that’s our generation’s way of coping in general is humor and dark humor.”

Browse any high-schooler’s Instagram feed, and such ideas, peculiar without context, are confirmed.

 Take mine for example. Yes, beneath the search box on the explore page there are a number of updates from reliable news sources; but, in an even greater capacity, there are rows and rows of memes poking fun at America’s terror.

Above one image of a nervous airplane passenger, a caption reads: “Me after hearing someone cough on my $8 round trip flight to Italy.”

Another photoshopped tweet from recently diagnosed NBA center Rudy Gobert sheepishly admits “lol my bad,” followed by a mask-clad emoticon.

Formerly, upon seeing my first batch of Coronavirus inspired internet jokes, I took offense to the several underlying agendas threatening to eclipse the intended quality of humor – undertones of racism and baseless animosity toward certain geographic regions being among those having seemed to reign prevalent over any raising of awareness or easing of nerves.

But, in seeking to further understand, I had to think like the teen I happen to be.

 When, as a young person, your country is afflicted by a growing threat to your well-being that continues to bound closer and closer to an all-but-inevitable disruption of your life, sometimes, wouldn’t you rather just laugh about it than be told why you should be afraid?

Yes, there is often a crossing of lines that ought not be tampered with, like the aforementioned peer of mine who LMAOed at a flat-out assault on an elderly commuter (I did unfollow this user immediately after seeing the reaction) – and, unfortunately, as long as there are problems like racism in the world, they will always find entities to inhabit, like demon would a soul – even if it’s in the palm of a teenage social media user.

But for the most part, in a political climate that has long been dominated by our parents, there is a strong desire present in all of us teenagers not only understand what the virus means to our country, but also be a part of that conversation. 

Some of us do so by watching the news.

Some of us do so by finding the humor in it all. 

All of us, though, whether from behind an open newspaper, a cell-phone screen, or a TV screen, will get through it together. 

After all, like my peer said on her Instagram story, “Racism does not cure diseases.” 

Sometimes, all it takes is an email from your supervisor offering animated hand-washing instructions to do the trick.