With cases of coronavirus spreading to at least 37 locations internationally per the CDC, it was inevitable that enterprising sellers would quickly capitalize on the growing collective anxiety by jacking up the price on N95 face masks and marketing "pandemic quick kits" of dubious necessity.
While gear like protective masks and medical-professional-level protective suits might be overkill—the CDC, for example, doesn't currently recommend that healthy people wear masks unless advised by a doctor—many consumers would clearly rather be "safe" than sorry. But even that rationale doesn't quite explain the bizarre new economy of artsy, cutesy, jokey, meme-inspired coronavirus merchandise.
On Etsy, one can now find a selection of coronavirus-themes graphic tees, as illustrator Rob Dobi pointed out on Twitter yesterday, and the market expands from there: a 3D-printed coronavirus model so you can gift it and use the phrase "I gave x the coronavirus," per the product listing; a gold, Fury Road-esque respirator mask; plushie, virus-shaped stuffed toys; and even themed stickers and mugs. Related gear also proliferates on online shirt retailers like Redbubble and TeePublic—where one could, in theory, even spend upwards of $100 on a comforter that states "Pray For Coronavirus Victims" in bright pink lettering.
Some coronavirus merch is serious, like the many designs that say things like "Pray for Wuhan" or "Wash Your Hands." Lorin, the seller behind Etsy store theTalkingApparel, told VICE that designs like "Stop Coronavirus Terror" were created to "to stop this behavior of panic about the virus and to stop the prejudice about China and Chinese people."
Other products are pretty insensitive, like a graphic that pairs "Don't Eat Me" with a picture of a bat, referring to the since-debunked idea that a video of a woman eating bat soup had to do with the virus' onset, or another design that describes SARS "beta" in comparison to the virus that started in Wuhan.
And of course, this being 2020, there are the memes. Alongside tees of The Office's Prison Mike and the meme of buff Kim Kardashian, the Etsy store Impression2050Plus lists a Corona-and-lime t-shirt that's described as "I Have Coronavirus and Lyme Disease Meme Funny Joke." As Olivier, who runs the store, told VICE, "I'd like to say that I'm part of the people that prefer laughing than losing time crying. Life is short so I'm always trying to turn bad situations into good situations. […] The main goal would be to make people laugh in this miserable capitalist society. If I can put a smile on people's face with a T-shirt, I will."
The level of acceptability of coronavirus-related designs seems to be moderated to some extent. MarketWatch reported in January that RedBubble had removed at least one design similar to Olivier's for violating the site's "community guidelines regarding sensitivity around works that deal with catastrophic events," for example.
Whether sellers are actually selling much of this coronavirus-themed merch remains unclear. Olivier called the Corona and Lyme shirt the store's big seller, but also acknowledged that the entire store—which is new—has only had 13 sales, as of yesterday. Two other Etsy stores offering coronavirus-related merch told VICE yesterday that they hadn't sold any yet.
Ryan, who runs the Etsy store LucidGraphic, initially told VICE that the store hadn't sold any of its coronavirus merch. "I started listing them on my shop when coronavirus wasn’t so much of a concern," Ryan said. "It seemed like a profitable niche, but clearly as tensions are rising and people are getting arrested for saying they have coronavirus on the subway, nobody is going to want to wear merch about a disease that’s already killed almost 3,000 people." A few hours later, though, Ryan wrote that the store had made its first coronavirus-related sale.
In an age when it's so easy to sell anything online, and when plenty of guides offer instructions on starting an Etsy store or a online T-shirt shop, it makes sense that would-be entrepreneurs will attempt to suck money out of any viral moment, both literal and figurative.
All of this virus-themed merch seems to be banking on the hope that it'll come up in a search for the word "coronavirus" and that someone might laugh or "aww" and then click buy. A mug bearing the phrase "the sun will rise again and we will try again" seems like an evergreen inspirational quip for the "live laugh love" crowd, for example, but in the current political moment, the virus is shoehorned into its description as "Rise Again Coronavirus Victory Latte Mug."
The chances of "CORONAVIRUS" shirts taking off as a streetwear look seems unlikely, but then again, people can't give up dumb graphic tees. Just wait until the influencers posing in surgical masks hear about this.
UPDATE 3/6/2020: As Buzzfeed News reported earlier this week, Etsy has removed much of its coronavirus-themed merchandise, including many of the items linked in this piece. An Etsy spokesperson told VICE in a statement:
"In order to keep our marketplace safe, our team is prioritizing taking down any listings that claim to protect against coronavirus. In the past few days alone, we have removed thousands of items that make such medical claims. We have also taken down hundreds of items that attempt to exploit the developing coronavirus situation. Our teams continue to automatically and manually review and remove items that violate our policies."