Coronavirus Puts Generation Z’s Dark Humor on Display


Coronavirus, which is shorthand for the 2019 novel coronavirus, has made headlines as cases of the new disease are reported in the United States. The disease is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, and it is a new type of virus that has not yet been identified. Of course, the outbreak of a new, unknown disease is sure to become a big news story, especially with 11 reported cases in the United States.

Some of the humorous responses to the coronavirus have gone viral, such as those comparing the virus to Corona beer. Though the xenophobic jokes are compeltely unacceptable, other jokes show that humor is often a way of coping with fear. The internet has given a platform for this type of comedy, especially for Generation Z.

This is the generation that is too young to remember so many tragedies that shaped the generations before us: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (2001), the shooting at Columbine High School (1999), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995) — just to name a few. We don’t know a world before these unimaginable events.

Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been in a state of national emergency due to looming threats of terrorism. There is a low-level anxiety that permeates through the generation. We have become so desensitized to tragedy and darkness that we are no longer shocked by it. In Generation Z’s most formative years, the country has witnessed acts of terrorism, the impact of climate change, skyrocketing student debt, incidents of police brutality and so much more.

Many of the tragedies we have seen, such as the mass shooting in Sandy Hook, were completely unprecedented. Now, the youngest members of our generation are accustomed to realistic shooting drills starting in elementary school. When the shooting in Sandy Hook happened in 2012, change was demanded. Instead, there have been at least 2,369 mass shootings since then, including the 2017 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 59 dead.

These heartbreaking and unacceptable events are ingrained in our minds. The pattern of inaction that inevitably follows only cements our frustration and fear. We are losing faith in our government to protect us from the world. A president of the United States who is so frequently publicly criticized for racist and sexist behavior, as well as owning a rampant Twitter account, is representative of how different the government that Generation Z has grown up with truly is.

Hearing the news that a new, unknown virus has emerged is just one more on top of many fears and concerns.

Just this January, the tension between Iran and the United States rose following the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. Social media was filled with jokes about impending World War III. While it seemed like a humorous exaggeration, President Trump recently told the media that war with the country was “closer than you thought.”

When faced with near-constant instances of horror, it should come as no surprise that dark humor is a staple of millennials and Generation Z. The internet has seen countless memes about college debt, climate change and now coronavirus. This humor allows us to cope, to bring some light to a seemingly hopeless situation.

Psychological studies have consistently supported the idea that humor can be an effective coping mechanism. In a study from Stanford, researchers found that “positive humor” about dark, disturbing situations can prove beneficial. The findings demonstrate that the humor works by changing the viewer’s perspective.

In addition to the laughs that these jokes provide, sharing this humor with an internet community fosters a sense of solidarity that is much needed in times of fear. Thus, one’s feelings evolve from panic and fear to perceiving a unified front against a common threat.

Unfortunately, some of the dark comedy has also facilitated a spread of xenophobic behavior and expressions. Given that the first known outbreak occurred in China, heightened levels of racist incidents towards Asian populations in the United States, Canada and Europe have appeared. Additionally, the internet has run rampant with racist memes, such as those joking about avoiding Asian women on dating apps.

These responses to the outbreak are unacceptable. There is no excuse for racist or xenophobic behavior, even when a potential threat such as the novel coronavirus looms.

Humor has helped individuals not only cope with the fear of the disease itself, but also these ignorant reactions. Asian teenagers on the popular platform TikTok have counteracted racist memes with their own humor — this time mocking the ignorance of others in response to the virus.

It is easier to laugh at the chaos of the new coronavirus rather than confront the frightening realities of a potentially fatal new disease. The scariest part of the outbreak is the unknown. Gathering data on the disease’s severity requires extended study, and the disease will continue to spread in the meantime.