TikTok Is Doing a Better Job at Predicting Outbreaks Than the Government

A blithe meme poking fun at El Pasoans for disregarding masks shows the chaos that ensues when elected officials do nothing to protect residents.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
November 20, 2020, 7:02pm
Screenshot of TikToks threaded under an audio clip about masking
Screenshot via TikTok

On October 24, El Paso, Texas reported one COVID-related death and a mounting 14.8 percent positivity rate. That same day, Edgar Salas, an El Paso resident, posted a TikTok poking fun at his city’s lack of regard for wearing masks and social distancing, and insistence upon continued partying as other cities masked up and stayed home. 

A day or two later, I saw the TikTok come across my own feed while I sat and scrolled through the app 750 miles away in Houston, a city closer to Tallahassee, Florida, than it is to El Paso. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of how ghastly the situation out west was starting to become. Now, weeks later, Salas’s TikTok feels like a creepy omen. 

While the TikTok posted on October 24 squarely blames partying El Pasoans for tempting fate and manufacturing their current crisis, at this point in the pandemic, no outbreak happens by surprise or at random. Before this most recent surge began in mid-October, the city had already scaled back nonessential businesses to 50 percent capacity, closed indoor and outdoor dining, limited outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people, and banned visits to nursing homes and elder care facilities. Since then, El Paso judges and officials have tried imposing a curfew, issuing mask mandates, and shutting down nonessential businesses altogether.

Yet, on the state level, Governor Greg Abbott seems to have mostly given up on enacting any sort of statewide restrictions that could prevent an El Paso situation from taking hold across Texas. In a press conference this week, Abbott was still—STILL!—more focused on treatment than prevention. His response to the El Paso outbreak has centered around sending resources to help the already-happening surge, rather than taking any sort of proactive approach to counties where cases are also rising. The state has continued with its reopening plan as other states shut down, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone as far as to sue El Paso to block its curfew shutdown at least once

Meanwhile, blithe social media posts and memes on TikTok are doing a better job of pointing out the obvious—places where people don’t mask tend to experience surging outbreaks—than the government is. The means of protection we know about now—wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding indoor gatherings and travel, staying home as much as possible—aren’t guarantees against getting sick, but when stacked up together, they work pretty well. Or, they work pretty well when and if there’s some sort of backup from elected officials, whose entire job it is right now to protect their residents.

Other TikToks threaded under the same audio clip have been used to morbidly comedic effect on the entire state of Texas, the entire state of Indiana, Walmart stores, and other cities, states, and places where COVID cases have spiked. When a city of nearly one million is flouting masks to the extent that a meme can be made out of it, the social media posts aren’t actually creepy omens; they’re yet another indicator of how incredibly obvious reality is to everyone but most political leaders in the U.S.