Can COVID-19 Ever Be Funny? The Coronavirus Handwashing Meme Says Yes

Tom Nicholson
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Esquire

The coronavirus isn't funny. COVID-19 is very much Not A Laugh. That's pretty obvious. That hasn't stopped the first properly huge meme of the COVID-19 crisis arriving, though.

You've probably seen them: the public information pamphlet-style panels showing the correct way to wash your hands, but with lyrics from songs underneath each one. There are absolutely loads.

If you want to make your own (and you obviously do) then head to Wash Your Lyrics, which will automatically pull the words through from Genius.com and append them to the public safety poster.

Now a few days old, the meme is coming unmoored from the actual time spent washing your hands, and getting funnier in the process. They've started spilling out from just using lyrics and started co-opting all sorts of other quotes. Try washing your hands while quoting commentator Ian Smith's words from the climax last summer's Cricket World Cup final, or Neil Kinnock's anti-Militant speech at the 1985 Labour party conference.

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Slightly unexpectedly, this meme might have been invented by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Boris Johnson said a few days ago that, in line with Public Health England's advice, we should wash our hands for 20 seconds, singing 'Happy Birthday' twice through. Rees-Mogg, prat that he is, suggested that it might be better to sing 'God Save the Queen'.

Now, the idea of a grown man singing the national anthem to himself is fundamentally very funny. That collision of modern science and the show of blind, jolly faith in the nation above all else that would lead Rees-Mogg to – and this is pure speculation – stare at a portrait of his monarch while disinfecting himself, allowing a single tear to dry on his cheek because he's not going to touch his face in the name of Queen and country, is the same comedy juxtaposition that's encapsulated in this tension-dispelling meme.

There's already been a lot of friction around whether it's acceptable to laugh about COVID-19 and coronavirus. People are dying, after all. Mercifully, the humour that's circulated on Twitter so far has been rather better-natured than the rancid stuff that followed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, which was bluntly racist. But given the amount of people who've died and likely will die – and the racism Chinese people and people with Chinese heritage have faced so far – that's understandable.

This meme's not taking the piss out of anyone who's got the virus though – it's about the strange alternate reality it feels like we're passing into. It's very easy to freak yourself out about exactly how bad things are going to get. The nature of coronavirus is itself anxiety-inducing.

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But making memes about it can help to make you feel like you can control it in some way. Soundtracking the unfamiliar and unprecedented necessity of washing your hands all the time with, say, the rant from the Come Dine With Me guy who wanted Jane to take her money and get off his property, roots it in something more familiar. It's a shared moment amid the darkness.

We're living in strange times, and the involuntary suspicion you feel you every time you see someone cough on the bus is exactly the sort of thing that can drive people apart. Memes like this, though, remind us that we're all going through the strangeness together.

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