How coronavirus memes have traced the timeline of the pandemic, from panic to the new normal

How coronavirus memes have traced the timeline of the pandemic, from panic to the new normal
Memes about the coronavirus have oscillated between dance challenges, toilet paper goofs, and celebrity missteps.@unicef/TikTok/@kristensreality/Twitter/@gal_gadot/Instagram
  • Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, people from China to the United States have been making memes about the virus.
  • While initial memes were lighthearted and precautionary, they took a turn for the serious as the pandemic worsened worldwide.
  • Now, memes are becoming less specific and less about the virus itself, instead relying on the general context of the pandemic.
  • The progression of memes about the coronavirus over the course of the first few months of 2020 shows that, to some degree, people online are acclimating to a new normal.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the novel coronavirus has dominated hard news and government over the course of 2020, it has also dominated the meme cycle.

People across the globe have been sharing their experiences and sentiments through memes on Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms. Over the course of January, February, and especially March, online chatter and memeing of the pandemic has shifted radically.

While early memes about the virus were initially rather lighthearted and focused on specific hot button topics like hand sanitizer, the discourse has shifted. At this point in the United States, 45 out of 50 states have issued at least a partial stay-at-home order and quarantine has become a part of our daily life. At the same time, President Trump is supporting Americans who have taken to the streets to call for the economy to reopen, seemingly encouraging some of them to "liberate" their states.

The novel coronavirus is no longer culturally novel, and that's reflected in the memes and trends that have emerged on platforms like Twitter and TikTok over the course of 2020. Trends moved from joking about the virus and memeing in-demand items to sharing personal experiences and ramifications from the virus itself, becoming less specific and more absurd as the pandemic became the biggest part of daily life.

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Overall, meme trends have shifted from explicitly grappling with coronavirus to simply existing within the context of the pandemic.

Meme tones have shifted from lighthearted and joking pre-lockdown to more serious as things began to settle in. Over the course of April, an estimated 95% of Americans have come under lockdown and the global number of coronavirus cases has crossed 2 million. Despite the staggering figures, as much of the world has been limiting social interaction and staying at home, the pandemic has begun to feel less novel. Memes don't have to explicitly reference coronavirus, or quarantine, to be tied to them in some way.

Coronavirus is the cultural moment, and essentially the default context for all memes or viral events. There have been edits upon edits of the "Gossip Girl" logo, discussions over the best Spider-Man film, and people flooding the timeline with photos of themselves at age 20. Even though content is moving away from being explicitly about the pandemic, it's still a symptom of it.

In short, the memes show something that many of us likely feel to some degree: people are starting to adjust to this new normal, even though the world is still in crisis.

Also in late March, however, memes and social media trends began to take a turn for the more general as quarantine and the pandemic became the default context.

One of the more nonsensical quarantine memes was the "until tomorrow" Instagram challenge, where users posted intentionally unflattering photos of themselves, deleted them after a day, and then issued a challenge to do the same to every person who had liked the photo. While not explicitly tied to quarantine, the context was still apparent. 

That same sort of lack of context applies to the "nature is healing, we are the virus" meme, which started as a parody of tweets about animals returning to cities and waters previously frequented by humans pre-lockdown. While some were real, others like the heavily circulated tweet about dolphins returning to Venice canals were hoaxes. Per BuzzFeed News, the meme began around March 26 after Minneapolis design student Ronnie Becker tweeted a photo of Lime Scooters laying in a river with the caption, "with everyone on lockdown, the lime scooters are finally returning to the river. nature is healing, we are the virus."

Recently, the "choose your quarantine house" meme has taken up residence online, asking people to choose from several groupings of fictional characters or public figures, many of whom are undesirable. It's a redux of the "where y'all sitting" lunch table meme, which operates on essentially the same principle. 



Later in March, most coronavirus memes and TikToks became more reflective of people's experiences.

By this point, many had been social distancing for two to three weeks in the United States, and on March 26, the US passed the threshold of reported cases in China, Italy, or any other country. While early TikToks about coronavirus had primarily focused on jokes and preparation that seemed distanced from the crisis, people began to post content about the "new normal" of quarantine as March progressed. Others shared the ways that the pandemic was upending aspects of their daily lives. Students turned their online Zoom classes into TikTok fodder; teachers did the same

As April 1st loomed closer, renters leveraged memes as a way to call awareness to the fact that those who had suffered financially as a result of the pandemic were struggling to find rent money for the upcoming month. A lack of government intervention in the form of a rent freeze left many to attempt to organize rent strikes of their own via social media.

if this doesnt work we’ll settle for a #rentstrike

A post shared by @ spilledmyjuice on Mar 17, 2020 at 1:39pm PDT


People also started to get fed up with celebrities.

On March 18, Gal Gadot ("Wonder Woman") posted a video in which she and a litany of fellow celebs sang John Lennon's "Imagine" in order to spread love. It didn't come across that way to everyone, though, with many suggesting that they should be contributing their wealth to relief efforts rather than sharing their voices. 

Some celebs like Vanessa Hudgens stuck their foot in their mouth with insensitive statements about the pandemic, and others like Ellen compared being stuck in large homes to being in prison. The wealthy have also been posting videos and clips online that show off their outdoor space, even while many people remain quarantined in small apartments or homes without easy access to safe outdoor areas. 

Overall, celeb missteps and actions have become a meme in and of themselves over the course of the past month or so, and as The New York Times' Amanda Hess notes, "celebrity culture is burning."


Things young people did for clout in mid-March were blown wildly out of proportion.

Just as certain memes became more grounded in material objects or experiences, influencers like Ava Louise were licking airplane toilet seats for clout. After posting the viral video in which she licks a toilet seat as part of a hypothetical "coronavirus challenge" on March 14, Ava Louise told Insider that the challenge was something that she had made up. "You boomers turned this nonexistent challenge into a problem that didn't exist and shared it globally because that's what you do and that's what you do to this country," she said. 

On March 18, YouTube prankster PrinceZee posted a video in which he appeared to lick a pole on a subway train. It generated massive outrage after WorldStar Hip Hop reposted it on Instagram (where it was later deleted) and Twitter, but it was actually a stunt — PrinceZee told Insider that the tongue that he used was fake. That didn't stop Piers Morgan from calling him "another f*cking moron."

The "boomer remover" meme also emerged in early March, breaking into public consciousness following a widely circulated Tweet about the phrase. "Boomer remover" was apparently a Gen Z-given title for the novel coronavirus, referring to the threat the virus poses to individuals over 60. That being said, the outrage over the phrase was more of a meme than the title itself: Insider's Kat Tenbarge spoke with Gen Z memers who said that the meme wasn't really a big deal.


Memes got more specific as coronavirus-induced panic-buying became a part of American culture in mid-March.

At this point, things had begun to escalate in the United States: on March 18, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in order to leverage the private sector in response to the pandemic, and on March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom instituted a statewide stay-at-home order.

With hand sanitizer becoming a hot button topic as news emerged about people stockpiling thousands of bottles of it to re-sell even amidst national shortages, people put a classic meme format to use — celebs as things — and began to make memes of celebrities as hand sanitizers

There were also toilet paper memes, brought about by the toilet paper shortages that followed mass stockpiling of resources in some communities. Memeing items in short supply allowed people both to inject some humor into the situation as well as highlight the behaviors that were causing shortages in the first place. 



There were also musically focused memes in early March, highlighting handwashing or prevention techniques.


##vudieuruatay Đăng tách thành 2 phần cho cả nhà dễ học theo nè Phần 1 trước nhaa ##tiktokvietnam

♬ Ghen Cô Vy (Vũ Điệu Rửa Tay) - Khắc Hưng, MIN, ERIK

Once March hit, memes about the virus took on a more precautionary bent, but many still weren't taking the virus seriously.


Where y’all at??? ##coronavirus ##coronavacation ##fyp ##foryou

♬ Something simple - aesthetic.aud1os

Early memes about the coronavirus in January or February were either locally focused or lighthearted.

Before the coronavirus outbreak in China had turned into a global pandemic, many of the memes being made about it were from Chinese creators and posted on social media networks like Weibo. Elsewhere, COVID-19 appears to still have felt like a kind of far-off joke. For many Americans and many in other parts of the Western world, it hadn't quite seeped into the fabric of daily life yet. People turned the virus into dating profile fodder, asking for people to potentially quarantine with down the line, or creating profiles for the virus itself.