For the last nine months, my team of anthropologists and I have been asking people across the United States to tell us their experiences of living during a global pandemic. We have seen a dangerous theme emerge: the belief that dangers of the virus come from strangers and that friendship and family ties can cancel contagion. Though logical, these interpretations of biology are wrong — sometimes dead wrong.

Stories help people make sense of a world in crisis. They can also lead to potentially harmful behaviors that can interfere with the ability to stay healthy or protect loved ones from Covid-19. When we asked dozens of interviewees across a spectrum of demographics, “What is Covid-19?” they consistently responded with answers like, “It’s a guy we don’t know,” or “It’s dangerous because we know the cold and the flu, but we don’t know this one.”

The people we have interviewed want to know the story of Covid-19. Some scour news articles about the trajectory of droplets and the shape of the Covid-19 particle. Many anxiously read ever-changing stories about where and how the virus lives: Does it remain on cardboard, and for how long? Do children carry it? Is being 6 feet apart safe for both inside and outside?…Read more