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Sitting on a table in my entryway, next to the bowl where we throw our keys and wallets, is a large aerosol spray bottle that I like to think of as my safety blanket.
In big block letters accented with a check mark, it professes to “Eliminate the virus that causes COVID-19.” It is, it assures users, “tested.” As if wiping out COVID weren’t enough, the spray promises to also kill E. coli, adenoviruses, black mold, influenza B, a bacteria that causes staph infections, and 99.9 percent of other viruses, fungi, and bacteria. 99.9 percent!
I first discovered this miracle spray in early December 2020, during a pandemic peak of terror that, because it was in the Pre-Vaccine Times, felt somewhat more terrifying than the many that have come since. That month, I moved to Mexico City, where my fiancé is from and where I work, and the spray, accompanied with a tub of Lysol wipes, was set out for me in the Airbnb I rented while we tried to find an apartment.
This was a pleasant surprise and incredibly convenient in my post-flight cleaning ritual, which involved, yes, wiping down my suitcase’s wheels with a disinfectant cloth, thanks to the recommendation of someone on the internet.
When I moved into an apartment, I bought my own anti-COVID spray, and there it has sat, perched in my entryway, ever since. In a couple moments of weakness, I have sprayed it not on a surface but on myself, something which is explicitly recommended against, I discovered when reading the bottle in preparation to write this piece. But for the most part, I haven’t really used it. A few months later, my partner and I were vaccinated. My therapist and I worked more on what it looked like to live with the pandemic. And indeed, there wasn’t evidence that the spray did much good anyway. We know that the vast majority of COVID infections can be traced back to direct contact, droplet transmission, or airborne transmission—not surfaces or clothes. And even if you do want to disinfect, the WHO recommends against sprays: “If disinfectants are to be applied, these should be via a cloth or wipe which is soaked in the disinfectant,” the organization notes.
Meanwhile, outside my apartment, I waded through black plastic mats filled with disinfectant liquid to enter grocery stores or coffee shops. There isn’t evidence COVID is spreading on the soles of our shoes, but if that evidence does one day appear, Mexico and its arsenal of disinfectant mats will be ready. For much of the past two years, and in some places to this day, indoor establishments station someone in a doorway to check temperatures, usually with a quick scan of the wrist. Just last week, to be let in to the dentist’s office, I had to stand on a disinfectant mat while someone sprayed me down and waved a thermometer at my forehead. In several municipalities throughout Mexico, tourists have been made to walk through arches or makeshift plastic tents, where they are sprayed down with disinfectant—the two times this happened to me I was walking outside, the disinfectant tunnel a speedbump connecting one outdoor space to another. (Once, when entering a rural town, we had to stop so our car tires could be disinfected.)
This is all part of what myriad analysts and critics have deemed “hygiene theater,” and it is an elaborate production. For those of us watching, the show can provide comfort—and that’s part of the danger. As Derek Thompson wrote in a July 2020 piece for the Atlantic, “hygiene theater builds a false sense of security, which can ironically lead to more infections.” The disinfectant mat at the entrance to a restaurant makes you feel OK about indoor dining; your trusty COVID spray waiting for you at home makes you feel OK about flying. These elaborate productions are also costly for the businesses, governments, and individuals behind them—the money local governments spend on disinfectant tunnels would undoubtedly be better spent on providing testing or masks, or beefing up hospital infrastructure.
Spraying disinfectants can also be dangerous for other reasons, and both the CDC and the WHO recommend against it. The WHO notes, “This practice could be physically and psychologically harmful and would not reduce an infected person’s ability to spread the virus through droplets or contact. …The toxic effect of spraying with chemicals such as chlorine on individuals can lead to eye and skin irritation, bronchospasm due to inhalation, and potentially gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting.” The CDC, meanwhile, warns of “increases in poisonings and injuries from unsafe use of cleaners and disinfectants since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
And so, yes, there isn’t evidence that my anti-COVID spray does any good. There is evidence that it can actually do harm.
But for me, the disinfectant spray isn’t even for disinfecting at this point. It’s decorative. It’s for comfort.
Living through the pandemic, it seems, means living through repetitive cycles of terror and relief, accented with plague doctor articles and oh so many tweets. Twitter’s algorithm populates my feed with ER doctors reminding us that “[Insert variant here] is not a joke”—I linger on their tweets because I know they are right, and knowing that they’re right makes me forget the other things I know are also right: that vaccines still offer good protection against severe disease; that individual actions like masking and handwashing still can make a difference, even though they’re poor substitutes for system-level public health policy; that this is an emergency but that my nervous system can’t handle being in emergency mode during every waking moment.
More than two years in, the question of how to behave feels grayer than ever. There are some things that remain, in my mind, pretty obvious: masking whenever possible indoors and especially in crowded places, testing lots, staying up to date on vaccines, isolating when necessary, and having honest, frequent conversations with the people you see about your mutual risk and comfort levels. But beyond that, things feel fuzzy—especially with variants like BA.5. We are trapped in webs wondering what to cancel, how to live, who to trust. Each day involves impossible choices and dice rolling, weighing a scale between mental and physical health. A lot of our safety depends on other peoples’ answers to the questions we ask ourselves.
In his 2020 hygiene theater piece, Thompson wrote, “COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed.” Two years later, it seems much of the U.S. COVID response has evolved from “misdirected anxiety” to an exhausted “eh.” This is what makes so many people—from the ER docs to COVID long haulers to at-risk groups—so frustrated, and at times, enraged. Rightfully so. It’s what makes the tweets and articles so terrifying.
I’ll never forget, after the plane mask mandate was lifted, flying from Mexico City—where mask requirements remain mostly uniform and uncontroversial in indoor spaces, especially places like airports—to Arizona. Everyone boarded the plane wearing a mask. The captain then joyfully announced that since we were leaving Mexico, we didn’t need masks anymore, and perhaps 70 percent of the passengers happily removed them.
Much of America may have shaken off its anxiety, but many Americans still haven’t. Our systems are failing us, and the only chance we have at maintaining public health are personal actions. We direct our anxiety toward those personal actions, ones that we know can make a difference—but even that, sometimes, is not enough.
My anti-COVID spray is an antidote for that extra anxiety. I walk through the door and see its promise—eliminates the virus that causes COVID-19—emblazoned in bright colors. Seeing it makes me feel better. It feels like control.
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“Meet the Lobbyist Next Door,” by Benjamin Wofford, Wired.
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El tiempo que te doy (The Time It Takes) brings exactly what I look for in a TV show: a good cry and a good think. An original Netflix series from Spain, it consists of 10 11-minute episodes and follows a couple from their meet-cute through their nine-year relationship, eventually chronicling how they both process their separation. The first episode includes one minute from the present—a fight that led to their breakup—and 10 from the past—meeting at a beach resort where they both worked. The second episode includes two minutes from the present and nine from the past, the third three minutes from the present and eight from the past, and so on, until arriving at the last episode, which is 10 minutes from the present and one from the past. The creative storytelling mimics how getting over someone often feels—at first, we live mostly remembering, only tangentially present in our own lives. As time goes on, it becomes easier to spend less time in memories and more in the present, but the memories never disappear completely. The show is entertaining and low commitment (it’s super easy to get through 11 minutes), and you can watch with English subtitles!
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Henry Grabar, a Slate staff writer based in France, about Europe’s deadly heatwave—and what it tells us about what’s to come. Last week, Lizzie interviewed Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, about how caste-based discrimination affects Silicon Valley. She also checked in with Alex Kantrowitz, the journalist behind the newsletter Big Technology, about the latest (never-ending!!) Musk-Twitter drama. Tune in on Sunday, when Lizzie will dig in to smart cities’ failed promises and potential futures with Ben Green, an expert in urban governance, and Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief planner of Toronto.
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