Is Covid Really Out to Get You?

It’s called anthropomorphism – attributing human qualities to nonhuman entities – and we all indulged in it with Covid.

Let’s start with Trump.

One of the most absorbing aspects of the Covid pandemic was the Trump vs. Covid show.

It turns out that viruses, unlike people, can’t be bullied. No matter how hard he tried, Covid implacably went about its business, refusing to be intimidated and paying Trump no mind.

Good for you, Covid – standing up to Trump!

That’s anthropomorphism – thinking of Covid as defying Trump.

But of course, I knew better. I knew that Covid is just a virus, which can’t stand up to anybody, but rather sits on the border between animate and inanimate objects – maybe living, maybe nonliving, but certainly not intentional or volitional.

I resolved to stop anthropomorphizing Covid like an ignoramus and go back to acting like an educated person, never mind a doctor.

Then my nephew, Atticus, tested positive.

When it came to Covid, my brother Anthony’s family was ultra-orthodox. They spent the entire eighteen months of the pre-vaccine period at our family ski house in upstate New York, isolated and following every precaution.

In the post-vaccine era, they moved back to the city, allowed the kids to go back to school in person, but toed the line with masking, distancing, and outdoor-everything.

Atticus, in particular, saw no one outside of his family and school. Unless Covid had mutated into a computer virus, it’s hard to see how he would have been exposed to it.

Then, one day, Atticus started sneezing. Coughing. A low grade fever….

He came to Westside Family Medicine after school and I swabbed him. The rapid test popped: a dark red positive line appearing before the fluid level even reached the top of the card.

To me, the moral of the story was, Covid bides its time. Eventually, everyone lets their guard down, and when they do, Covid makes its move.

While they were in Windham, battening down the hatches and building the barricades, Covid was like, “That’s OK, stay up there as long as you want. Just let me know when the kids go back at school – I’ll wait…”

Blatant anthropomorphism.

But not as blatant as how we anthropomorphize our pets.

At peak pandemic, winter of 2020, Anthony’s family got a dog. My brother Peter’s family soon followed suit. Eventually, I succumbed to the constant and unrelenting pressure and we got a dog too – a Red Tri Australian Shepherd with piercing blue eyes whom we named Dakota.

By now she is part of the family. We talk to her like a person, interpret her behavior like a person, and attribute to her all sorts of person-like things: fear, love, joy, anger, surprise, curiosity, as well as exuberance in work and play…

Maybe that’s reality, maybe not – who knows the mind of a dog? But it feels impossible to view her in any other way.

Mind you, a Dakota is a sentient being, a fellow mammal with a brain. What about the other extreme of the anthropomorphic spectrum: inanimate objects?

My favorite example of this is Wilson, the soccer ball from the movie Cast Away. For those too young to have seen it, Tom Hanks plays a FedEx pilot who crashes and ends up on a deserted island.

Among the FedEx packages that get washed up with him, he finds a Wilson soccer ball. He smears the image of a face onto it with his own blood, and Wilson becomes his dear companion and friend.

Suffice it to say that when Wilson gets swept away during a storm, it’s as if a human character had died: not a dry eye in the house.

The truth is that while anthropomorphism is not rational, it’s not a mistake, either. It’s hard-wired into us, like language and emotions.

In 2007, the social scientists Hamlin, Winn, and Bloom, published a letter in the scientific journal, Nature, entitled Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.

In it, they describe the following elegant experiment.

A group of 6- and 10-month old infants were shown a wooden block attempting to climb a hill (the “climber”), and falling to the bottom. On the third try, another block either bumps it up to the top (the “helper”), pushes it down to the bottom (the “hinderer”), or does nothing (the “neutral”).

The results clearly demonstrate – based on “reaching” and “looking time,” validated ways of determining infant preferences – that the infants prefer helper blocks to both hinderer blocks and neutral blocks. And not by a little, either, but by a lot.

Certainly, anthropomorphism provides a rich and charming way of looking at the world; one that creates the possibility of similes, metaphors and other poetic devices; one without which life would be less magical, interesting, and fun.

But could it be – as Hamlin’s experiment suggests – that the true significance of anthropomorphism runs deeper? Could it represent a biological adaptation that provides a foundation for human morality?

As I ponder the question, Dakota approaches, drops a tennis ball at my feet, and gives me a look.

I promptly read the answer in her eyes, “Duh! Now shut the laptop. Time to play fetch!”

Dr. Bertie Bregman
Dr. Bertie Bregman
Full Stack Family Medicine is a newsletter about what it’s really like to practice medicine and run a medical practice in New York City.
This blog will be a mix of stories, advice and discussion – topics will diverge widely, but they will all share a point of view!