photo: a very filthy punk club bathroom
If you've ever used this bathroom, you're immune to coronavirus. Vivienne Gucwa/Getty Images

Social media’s favorite Covid-19 meme is also an expression of strength, defiance and community affection in the face of a terrifying global pandemic.

Jeremi Barnes wants to be upfront: He’s got to give credit to his girlfriend for the joke that’s doing numbers on Twitter.

“BREAKING NEWS: If you’ve ever had the water in Warrensburg, MO you’re immune to the Coronavirus,” he tweeted. The joke is resonating with folks in the small city of Warrensburg, where Barnes is a senior at the University of Central Missouri. Nearly a thousand people mashed the like button over the last week.

I don’t get the joke, but I get the joke. There’s gotta be something so gross about the water in Warrensburg that not even the dread coronavirus could contest its status as a test of the immune system.

“If you go to any restaurant and ask for a water you will instantly notice it after your first sip,” Barnes tells me via DM. The taste is horrendous, he says, ripe with chlorine. And it just does something to your skin and hair. In a word, Warrensburg’s water is nasty. “Anyone will confirm this.”

Like so many others, Barnes is trying to prepare for the arrival of Covid-19 where he lives. (Missouri confirmed its second case of coronavirus on March 12.) At UCM, he competes on the men’s track and field team — his event is the triple jump — and he learned on Thursday that the team isn’t scheduling any more practices or meets for the foreseeable future. Barnes is taking this in stride; at least, he was gracious enough to explain a joke to a stranger online as the crisis was starting to feel real.

We all get this joke. In fact, we’re all making this joke. Barnes’s take is one of many popping up every minute on Twitter. If you’ve ever eaten at Papaya King on New York’s Upper East Side, you’re immune to coronavirus. If you’ve ever done Fiesta in Old San Antonio, you’re immune to coronavirus. The meme is catching on, maybe (hopefully!) faster than the coronavirus is spreading.

As the U.S. braces for the pandemic — and as local track coaches lap national leaders in making responsible decisions about public safety — social media has pivoted hard to gallows humor. We’re making Tom Hanks fan art and “Corona Time” TikToks and endless hand-washing instruction jokes.

Still others are registering their growing alarm by boasting about surviving frat bathrooms, Riot Fest, and pee-laden water parks (ew). These “if you’ve ever” immunity memes are a nervous laugh in that way, but they’re something else, too. A gesture of defiance against nature, maybe. People are making the point that the places we come from and the things that make them special make us strong. We have faced down gnarly before, and we will do it again.

“If you’ve ever been to Tonic in Reno, you’re immune from Coronavirus,” writes Gabrielle Lucas. She tells me (via DM) that she spent her college days there in Reno. The Tonic Bar and Lounge is one of those establishments at the world’s end, a bar of last resort. No one goes before 2 a.m., Lucas says, and they leave reeking of whiskey and cigarettes. “I think this tweet came from my bones somehow,” replied Andrea Rogers, another Reno person summoning the indomitable spirit of the morning after.

From scanning the timeline, dive bars, municipal water systems, and hometown fast food outlets are the most popular targets of this meme. Most joke about cleanliness: A tweet about the bathroom at the legendary East Village punk venue CBGB resonated with me. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then I’ve been to hell and back — so what do I have to fear from another flu?

All of them — all the resonant jokes anyway, there are plenty that are racist or otherwise awful — display a tenderness about home. It’s as if people are raising a flag, identifying the experiences that distinguish us in the face of a pandemic that threatens to reduce human populations to numbers: the infected, the recovered, the deceased. I, too, know how bad the water tastes in San Angelo, Texas. If sulphur water were a tonic against Covid-19, the CDC would be bottling and selling the Concho River. Still, I find myself idly wishing I was bunkering back at home instead of where I live now. I’m from here, this meme says. You can’t kill me.

These if-you’ve-ever jokes about immunity are tinged with another, darker meaning. Each bit is a piece of disinformation, an illustration of the heedless power of fake news in a global health crisis. They use the same puffed-up tone of idiotic overconfidence employed by regime propagandists, professionally wrong pundits, and that “peak performance” meme guy. That’s part of what makes these jokes land on Twitter: The medium is so infused with malintent and sheer wrongness that the authors of critically mistaken health tips could conceivably be trying to pull one over on hapless readers. Only people in the know will know what’s up.

Of course, the virus bearing down on the nation doesn’t care if we’ve tried the best carne asada fries ever or consume malört as if it were the law. Knowing that the country is not prepared — not in terms of antibodies or vaccines or preventative measures or public health resources or political leadership — what else can anyone say? We screw up our faces, summon deep wells of pride, and tell this asshole germ to jump off the nearest bridge.

Barnes, the Missouri track senior, tells me that if it comes down to it, he may redshirt in order to race again next year. He’s not ready to leave just yet. “Aside from the water and the noise from the train that comes through from time to time, the town is great,” he says. “Pine Street is the place to be! I love Warrensburg.” Why would he quarantine anywhere else?

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