America is a porned-out society. Half of young men and a fifth of young women admit to viewing porn in the past week (millions more do so and then lie to pollsters about it). Prestige cable shows such as Game of Thrones built their popularity through a bevy of brazenly-displayed breasts. The best-selling book of the 2010s was an erotic BDSM novel; the second and third-place spots were taken by its sequels. And the concept of a quick, dirty, cheap high extends outside the domain of sex, which is why the world has food porn, architecture porn, and military porn.

And now, enter a new genre: COVID-19 death porn.

On Saturday, the Daytona Beach News-Journal noted the death of radio host Marc Bernier after a three-week battle with COVID. Bernier, the paper observed, was ‘an outspoken opponent of vaccinations’. The death of a local radio host might normally be a local story, but this one quickly went national. Many publications noted that Bernier was the third unvaccinated radio host to be stricken down in a single month, following fellow Floridian Dick Farrel and Tennessee veteran Phil Valentine.

Cockburn will concede that when a public figure stakes their life on a certain medical opinion and dies a preventable death as a result, the irony is enough to merit a news story. But he would be remiss if he didn’t observe that standards for this sort of thing seem a tad inconsistent. Losing weight is another entirely controllable way to reduce COVID risk, too, but the same publications that gloat over dead vaccine skeptics have published a Pravda’s worth of takes explaining that COVID-related fat shaming is not funny and not OK.

Plus, more than one article has lurched from an appreciation of public irony into thinly-disguised glee at the death of the unbelievers. A Sunday piece in the Hill with 40,000 Facebook shares absolutely glories in the demise of its subject, while also making it clear his real crimes weren’t vaccine-related at all:

Caleb Wallace, 30, who created the San Angelo Freedom Defenders, a group that held a rally to combat ‘COVID-19 tyranny’, died after spending more than a month in the hospital, according to a message posted by his wife, Jessica Wallace, on a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover his hospital bills.

‘… [Caleb] organized a rally for people who were frustrated with the COVID-19 mitigation measures that had been put in place to contain the current surge in infections.

‘… “Show me the science that masks work,” Caleb Wallace wrote on Facebook in December 2020, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times. “Show me the evidence that school closures work. Show me the evidence that lock-downs work,” he added.’

By the way, the late Mr Wallace was right on all those points! Everyone is still waiting for much evidence that school closures or lockdowns did much at all to save lives or stop the spread. New York and New Jersey did far worse with punitive lockdowns than South Dakota did with none whatsoever, and despite supposedly sowing death with their policies at every turn, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee all have entirely average death rates. But for noticing as much, and arguing that any hard-to-see benefit wasn’t worse economic devastation and a loss of basic rights, Wallace is honored with a snide Beltway send-off.

Still, at least Wallace actually died. The demand for COVID death porn is so great that, much like with hate crimes, demand outpaces supply. In July 2020, lurid tales told of vibrant young adults holding COVID parties, only to admit their error mere moments before they ghoulishly expired, ‘Masque of the Red Death’-style. In November, a South Dakota nurse tweeted of dying patients gasping that the virus was fake even as they were intubated. Both of those stories were, it turns out, fake, and Cockburn doesn’t feel much better about Alabama doctor Brytney Corbia, who sent a tingle down every CNN producer’s leg when she described staring down plague victims and telling them it was ‘too late’ to get a vaccine.

Will these stories convince any fence-sitters to get the vaccine? A few, maybe. But so far they’ve been far more effective at spreading hatred of the press.

Why are these spectacular death fables so popular? Cockburn suspects a major element is precisely that COVID-19 has not been as spectacularly destructive as some people feared (hoped?). Despite all the fretting about schools, actual K-12 outbreaks have not materialized,; even unvaccinated children remain frustratingly near-immune from harm. Red state hospitals have never collapsed under the waves that were predicted 18 months ago. Many thousands have died, but they are almost all of the old or sickly sort for whom death is unsurprising. And yet despite all of this, life in blue states and cities remains as repressed as ever. First-graders have spent a quarter of their lives masked up, flying is even more of an indignity than before, the average small business owner is still a wreck from months of yo-yo lockdowns. All of these policies require a human sacrifice as a symbol, if nothing else. They are proof that, if American life has become depressing and alienating, at least unbelievers are still condemned to COVID hell.