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Newsfeeds, news broadcasts and newspapers have had round-the-clock coronavirus coverage for the past few weeks, and with good reason. There are now more than 220,000 COVID-19 cases and 9,000 deaths world-wide, including confirmed cases in all 50 U.S. states.
As a result, President Donald Trump and his Coronavirus Task Force have called for limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, and many states have closed schools, restaurants, museums, theaters and gyms, which has seen many Americans lose their jobs and start to socially isolate themselves in their homes.
But several other stories have also gone viral:
–Quarantined Italians singing to each other from their balconies, and dolphins and fish seen swimming in Venice’s otherwise empty canals.
-Penguins leaving their enclosures to waddle freely through a deserted Chicago aquarium.
-Seth Rogen livetweeting his experience watching the movie “Cats” while under the influence of marijuana. (Hilarity ensues.)
-Countless clips and memes of people adapting to #quarantinelife, as Americans under social isolation finding creative ways to exercise or commiserating over being stuck inside.
Read more: What is social distancing? This practice is key to slowing the coronavirus, public health experts say
And while these anecdotes may seem frivolous on the surface, such heartwarming stories, funny videos and snarky memes play a vital role in coping with a global health and economic crisis that is rapidly changing the way we live and communicate.
“Social media is actually doing what it was meant to do: connecting more of us to each other,” Dr. Amanda Spray, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health in Manhattan, told MarketWatch. “It really reminds us all that we’re in this together.”
“This is a pandemic. This is of epic proportions. This is very scary, and it’s understandable that people would be scared and should be concerned,” Dr. Spray added. “This takes us out of the intensity of the situation, which can be very helpful.”
Hence why hashtags like #panicshopping trended on Twitter TWTR, +11.36% as people stockpiled toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer once the fear of the spreading coronavirus really began taking root in American a couple of weeks ago. Among the memes being passed around were plenty of jokes about the scarcity of toilet paper — or the few foods being left behind on supermarket shelves even as stores like Trader Joe’s, Amazon-owned Whole Foods AMZN, +5.81%, Costco COST, +0.16%, Target TGT, +1.34% and Walmart WMT, -2.39% were otherwise cleaned out.
“Often times the most popular memes, the jokes, they’re rooted in some degree of reality, and so it can feel very comforting: ‘I’m not the only one feeling like this,’” explained Dr. Spray.
Of course, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, many people were using social media in excess — leading to all sorts of hand-wringing over how much screen time was too much, as well as how the “fear of missing out” was messing with everyone’s heads.
“Before this COVID-19 pandemic was hitting, social media was actually leading to a lot of social distancing, itself,” mused Dr. Spray. “It was removing the personal connection, it was removing the actual going out for coffee, actually getting together with your friends, and leading a lot of people to feel quite disconnected.”
But now no one is missing out on anything, really, if everything is canceled or closed, and everyone is staying home to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Suddenly, group Google Hangouts GOOG, +4.23% and Facetiming on an Apple AAPL, +1.12% iPhone or iPad, or sharing memes and gifs over text or on Facebook, Instagram FB, +7.18% and Twitter, has to stand in for getting together in person.
‘Social media is actually doing what it was meant to do: connecting more of us to each other.’
“Social media is turning social distancing into just physical distancing,” Judy Holland, a journalist who has researched loneliness and anxiety for her new book, “HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment When Your Kids Leave Home,” told MarketWatch. “And social media can be a fantastic refuge.”
Research has shown that taking breaks is an important part of productivity. The University in Israel found that doing nothing for a few moments during the day and taking time to unplug without thinking is ideal to replenish motivation and regain focus. Dr. Spray also noted that while staying informed about coronavirus is important, following the coverage becomes unhealthy if it makes you feel very anxious, or interferes with your ability to sleep, to get your work done, or to engage with others. “Distractions can be a useful tool for coping with very stressful situations,” she said — as long as those distractions, in turn, also don’t interfere with getting things done or engaging with others.
“The humor bring us together because we find our common humanity in the humor. We all feel the sense of warmth,” adds Holland. “It gives us a break, so we seek it out.”
Besides, what’s more human than laughing in the dark?
So of course, “This Is The End” star Rogen tweeting his stream-of-consciousness reactions to “Cats” while “pretty stoned,” in his words, went viral this week. The Twitter thread has drawn more than 300,000 likes and counting, as well as thousands of comments from readers — many of whom are self-isolating or social-distancing at home — thanking him for the much-needed distraction.
“This feed made my night,” tweeted former “20/20” news anchor Elizabeth Vargas in response.
Other amusing celebrity responses to the current crisis include Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench telling viewers to “just keep laughing” while wearing a ridiculous dog hat with flapping ears in a clip viewed 4.7 million times and counting.
Or “Jurassic Park” star Sam Neill using his self-isolation as an opportunity to catch up on chores around the house, such as laundering all of his sneakers. “Boy do they smell good,” he says in a clip viewed more than 470,000 times.
And there was also “Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot’s attempt to recreate a “We Are the World” moment with celebrity friends and co-stars like Kristin Wiig, Will Ferrell and Maya Rudolph. Love it or hate it, it has provided plenty of fodder for conversation.
Read more: Gal Gadot leads a cringeworthy star-studded ‘Imagine’ singalong from quarantine
But some of the most delightful distractions have come from the animal kingdom. Soothing zoo live streams, and clips of pets overjoyed to have their owners spending more time at home — see the #quarantinecats and #quarantinedogs hashtags — have also transcended being mere guilty pleasures as people have gotten sick or seen loved ones get sick, or have lost their livelihoods and their social safety nets
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium has started sharing videos on its official Twitter account of three penguins wandering the empty exhibits and meeting the other animals since it had to temporarily close amid the outbreak. They include Wellington, who appears fascinated by the tropical fish in the Amazon habitat, as well as Edward and Annie, who went on a date before they begin building their nests next week.
Viewers went wild over the clips. “The content we need,” wrote one. “Thank you!”
Speaking of penguins, a video from Two Oceans Aquarium in South Africa that shows several penguins hopping down a flight of stairs has also filled viewers with delight.
Animal lovers can also take a virtual escape by watching live streams from several zoos and aquariums while we practice distancing, many of which are posted on YouTube. They include the Cincinnati Zoo’s live stream starring Fiona the hippo; the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Panda Cam; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Cam, as well as the San Diego Zoo’s live cams following its elephants, tigers, koalas, baboons and more.
“Animals are magical. They’re simpler. They take us outside of ourselves,” Holland said. “We’re transported right out of, ‘Oh my God, what about my 85-year-old parent?’ to, ‘Oh my God, look at that ridiculous animal.’ They’re great escapes.”
The internet has also obsessed over a two-minute clip of “Marble1” racing posted to Twitter and Facebook earlier this week, even as major sports leagues such as the NBA, the NCAA and the MLB have canceled sporting events. “Day 4 with no sports,” the poster wrote, while the video showed several marbles rolling down a dirt course. In fact, there’s an entire YouTube channel for marble racing, if you become hooked.
Or folks have taken the opportunity to get creative about staying at home, which has led to amusing clips of resourceful home workouts and games.
“Everything we’re faced with now is very serious,” said Dr. Spray, “and reminding yourself what good there is in the world can be very helpful.”