No, Dr. Anthony Fauci did not write the “How dare you you risk the lives of others so cavalierly?” essay

A copy-paste meme I’ve encountered recently compares chickenpox, herpes and HIV with COVID-19, and builds up to a powerful rebuke to those who dismiss the seriousness of the current pandemic. I was particularly moved by these words:

For those in our society who suggest that people being cautious are cowards, for people who refuse to take even the simplest of precautions to protect themselves and those around them, I want to ask, without hyperbole and in all sincerity:

How dare you?

How dare you risk the lives of others so cavalierly. How dare you decide for others that they should welcome exposure as “getting it over with”, when literally no one knows who will be the lucky “mild symptoms” case, and who may fall ill and die. Because while we know that some people are more susceptible to suffering a more serious case, we also know that 20 and 30-year-olds have died, marathon runners and fitness nuts have died, children and infants have died.

I most recently found this text in post that credited these insights to immunologist and (currently sidelined) White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. I went online, hoping to find the source so that I could link to it, but instead found the text has been circulating as an anonymous copy-paste meme since at least June 29.

While I recognize and appreciate the positive motives of whoever authored this text, there’s no evidence to associate this text with Dr. Fauci, and internal evidence supports the idea it was written by a non-expert who was familiar with the informal conventions of online writing but not familiar with the conventions of technical writing.

Fauci is widely trusted, people are eager for information, and a non-trivial number of people are worried about another non-trivial number of people who object to mask mandates and other inconvenient and policies introduced by local authorities as part of efforts to fight COVID-19. So it makes sense that someone who responds to the messages in the meme would find it even more meaningful (and even more worth sharing) if it’s attached to Fauci’s name.

Here is how the meme begins:

>Chickenpox is a virus. Lots of people have had it, and probably don’t think about it much once the initial illness has passed. But it stays in your body and lives there forever, and maybe when you’re older, you have debilitatingly painful outbreaks of shingles. You don’t just get over this virus in a few weeks, never to have another health effect. We know this because it’s been around for years, and has been studied medically for years.

Herpes is also a virus. And once someone has it, it stays in your body and lives there forever, and anytime they get a little run down or stressed-out they’re going to have an outbreak. Maybe every time you have a big event coming up (school pictures, job interview, big date) you’re going to get a cold sore. For the rest of your life. You don’t just get over it in a few weeks. We know this because it’s been around for years, and been studied medically for years.

HIV is a virus. It attacks the immune system and makes the carrier far more vulnerable to other illnesses. It has a list of symptoms and negative health impacts that goes on and on. It was decades before viable treatments were developed that allowed people to live with a reasonable quality of life. Once you have it, it lives in your body forever and there is no cure. Over time, that takes a toll on the body, putting people living with HIV at greater risk for health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, diabetes, bone disease, liver disease, cognitive disorders, and some types of cancer. We know this because it has been around for years, and had been studied medically for years.

Now with COVID-19, we have a novel virus that spreads rapidly and easily. The full spectrum of symptoms and health effects is only just beginning to be cataloged, much less understood.

When I’ve heard Dr. Fauci speak, I’ve noted that he drops technical terms left and right. He’ll often define those terms for non-experts, but he will just as frequently add complexity to his answers so that his answers are more meaningful to experts. I don’t see any of that complexity in this text.

I’m not a medical expert, but it’s not hard to look up the fact that technically, chickenpox is not a virus, but rather the disease caused by varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

Herpes is the disease caused by the herpes simplex virus, but non-experts use “herpes” to refer to both. HIV is the virus that causes the disease AIDS, and SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the disease COVID-19.

Given that experts have very practical reasons for treating a virus and a disease caused by the virus as very separate things, I don’t think a trained expert would be likely to use the sloppy construction “Now with COVID-19, we have a novel virus.” I actually have some boilerplate text that I insert in student papers whenever I see the “With X, Y” grammatical construct, which is usually a sign the student knows X and Y are related but isn’t quite ready to articulate why.

The text also uses “someone” and “they” interchangeably, which someone of Dr. Fauci’s generation would probably have been taught to think was a grammatical error. Likewise, the text uses asterisks for emphasis (“We literally *do not know* what we do not know”) and the occasional all-caps word (“with what we DO know”), which are both common on social media, but would not have been part of how a person of Dr. Fauci’s generation would have learned to write.

In addition, the interjection “weird, right?” and the tone of “How dare you?” are not consistent with the language I’ve seen Dr. Fauci use.

Whoever authored this text, or perhaps transcribed it from its original source, was probably neither a trained medical expert nor a trained technical communicator. Consider the reference to “20 and 30-year-olds.”  Proper use of the hyphen would render that as “20- and 30-year-olds.” (Note I added the missing hyphen after “20.”)

One list refers to “Frequent hand-washing” (which is the correct use of the hyphen) and “Mask wearing” (where the hyphen would serve exactly the same grammatical function, if it were present). It’s common for the hyphen to disappear in informal writing, and I normally wouldn’t spend any time writing a blog post pointing out someone else’s hyphen errors, but I mention this as further evidence that this document was likely not produced by someone trained as a science communicator.

Here’s the rest of the text:

So far the symptoms may include:
Fever
Fatigue
Coughing
Pneumonia
Chills/Trembling
Acute respiratory distress
Lung damage (potentially permanent)
Loss of taste (a neurological symptom)
Sore throat
Headaches
Difficulty breathing
Mental confusion
Diarrhea
Nausea or vomiting
Loss of appetite
Strokes have also been reported in some people who have COVID-19 (even in the relatively young)
Swollen eyes
Blood clots
Seizures
Liver damage
Kidney damage
Rash
COVID toes (weird, right?)

People testing positive for COVID-19 have been documented to be sick even after 60 days. Many people are sick for weeks, get better, and then experience a rapid and sudden flare up and get sick all over again. A man in Seattle was hospitalized for 62 days, and while well enough to be released, still has a long road of recovery ahead of him. Not to mention a $1.1 million medical bill.

Then there is MIS-C. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. Children with MIS-C may have a fever and various symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eyes, or feeling extra tired. While rare, it has caused deaths.

This disease has not been around for years. It has basically been 6 months. No one knows yet the long-term health effects, or how it may present itself years down the road for people who have been exposed. We literally *do not know* what we do not know.

For those in our society who suggest that people being cautious are cowards, for people who refuse to take even the simplest of precautions to protect themselves and those around them, I want to ask, without hyperbole and in all sincerity:

How dare you?

How dare you risk the lives of others so cavalierly. How dare you decide for others that they should welcome exposure as “getting it over with”, when literally no one knows who will be the lucky “mild symptoms” case, and who may fall ill and die. Because while we know that some people are more susceptible to suffering a more serious case, we also know that 20 and 30-year-olds have died, marathon runners and fitness nuts have died, children and infants have died.

How dare you behave as though you know more than medical experts, when those same experts acknowledge that there is so much we don’t yet know, but with what we DO know, are smart enough to be scared of how easily this is spread, and recommend baseline precautions such as:

Frequent hand-washing
Physical distancing
Reduced social/public contact or interaction
Mask wearing
Covering your cough or sneeze
Avoiding touching your face
Sanitizing frequently touched surfaces

The more things we can all do to mitigate our risk of exposure, the better off we all are, in my opinion. Not only does it flatten the curve and allow health care providers to maintain levels of service that aren’t immediately and catastrophically overwhelmed; it also reduces unnecessary suffering and deaths, and buys time for the scientific community to study the virus in order to come to a more full understanding of the breadth of its impacts in both the short and long term.

I reject the notion that it’s “just a virus” and we’ll all get it eventually. What a careless, lazy, heartless stance.”