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What would a time traveler from 2019 think about the COVID pandemic

I was thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic recently, and I wondered how we would communicate with a time traveler from just two years ago. I had to do this thought exercise a few years ago when I had to create a paragraph in modern English that would make no sense to a time traveler from 1965. Think about the words that we use in common conversation that would make no sense to them — gigabytes, smartphones, internet, WiFi, gluten-free, and so many more.

While at my local coffee joint drinking my favorite and writing my previous blog post, someone said to me, “cool mask.” It’s a Star Trek mask — yes, I am a Trek nerd, don’t get me started. I then realized back in 2019, there is no way someone would put those two words together and make sense.

So, just to have fun on this Friday afternoon, I thought I’d list out some of the terms we use today that would be foreign to someone from 2019. Just a caveat first — some of these terms would be known by scientists and those who were involved with vaccines. But most would not have been said or understood in normal conversations.

Photo by Önder Örtel on Unsplash

COVID-19 pandemic terminology just to confuse time travelers

  • Face mask — face masks were common in Asia, but outside of a hospital, I suppose only a bank robber (do people still rob banks?) would have a face mask. Now, at least among those of us who care about our fellow man, face masks have evolved into a fashion statement. I have four or five that I wear in rotation. And I’ve seen so many cool ones too. Our 2019 time traveler would be confused if you asked them, “where is your face mask?”
  • Mask mandates — without any context, someone from 2019 would wonder why governments were requiring people to wear masks.
  • Vaccine mandates — in case you weren’t paying attention (and frankly most people didn’t), but vaccine mandates have been around forever. California instituted vaccine mandates for school-age children in 2015, and other states have similar vaccine mandates for children. But outside of anti-vaxxers and pro-science vaccine advocates, vaccine mandates may have been a foreign term to our 2019 time traveler, even if their kids went to school with a full set of vaccines.
  • Social distancing — this would totally confuse your typical time traveler from 2019. I think it was a term that might have been used by a handful of public health experts, and social distancing has been used to contain diseases going back centuries, the term first came into common use in 2020. Can you imagine telling that 2019 time traveler to stand two meters away?
  • Stay at home orders — depending on where you live they were also called lockdowns, self-isolation, or self-quarantine. Our 2019 time traveler would be wondering why democracies would be ordering their citizens to stay at home. Now, if our time traveling person had any sense of logic and altruism, I’m sure they would be all right with it, but if you used it in a sentence without the COVID-19 pandemic as context, they would wondering what you were going on about.
  • COVID-19 — no explanation necessary here. Before the end of 2019, no one, even scientists, would have a clue what “COVID-19” meant. I think we used “coronavirus” or “novel coronavirus” for the first few weeks of the lockdown before COVID-19 caught on as the description for the disease. By the way, that previous sentence would make no sense to almost everyone from 2019.
  • Variants — I had a vague understanding of variants because some vaccines, like mumps and measles, contained antigens from variants of the virus. Of course, virologists and microbiologists use “variant” all the time, but it was hardly in common usage. If you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki was a “time variant,” which made many of us laugh heartily when we first heard it.
  • Omicron variant— I had a vague knowledge of the word “omicron” as it was the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet (representing our letter O), and I am very familiar with the prestigious honor society, Omicron Delta Kappa. However, I doubt that omicron would have been familiar to your average 2019 time traveler, especially as the term “omicron variant.”
  • Anthony Fauci — unless you were familiar with his work on HIV/AIDS or his leadership of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he would have been unknown to almost everyone. I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by him on this strange new virus, which turned out to be HIV, back when I was a grad student during the late Cretaceous. Dr. Fauci is an amazing person — at the age of 82, he stills runs large research projects focusing on infectious diseases, he still does rounds (he’s a practicing physician, he is chief medical advisor to President Biden, and he put up with the nonsense of Donald Trump. The right wingers who disrespect him have no basis for doing that, it’s ridiculous. Nevertheless, unless our time traveler studied infectious diseases, he probably would have no clue who Dr. Fauci is. I mean I follow this field closely, and even though I had the opportunity to meet him many many years ago, it took me a while to remember who he was.
  • mRNA vaccines — I have a thorough educational and research background in cell biology and biochemistry, but I had to pull out a book to read up on how mRNA worked in the cell. And even then, I was clueless on how it worked as a vaccine (though, being a good scientist, I read everything I could about it, and I feel I have a very competent knowledge about mRNA vaccines). Unless our pre-COVID-19 pandemic time traveler was a biologist or vaccine scientist, they would probably not know what mRNA was and what an mRNA vaccine is. Given some of the ignorant comments I see on any post I write about the mRNA vaccine, it doesn’t appear many people in 2022 understand it either.
  • Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — these two drugs, which have no robust and repeated evidence that they do anything for COVID-19, became the drugs of choice for COVID-19 vaccine deniers and the right wing (which have merged these days). We know they’re useless, but our friendly 2019 time traveler would wonder what they were and why we are talking about it.
  • Moderna — before the pandemic hit, Moderna was a small research and development company that had “borrowed” from technology American scientist, Katalin Karikó, who figured out a way to induce the production of antigens from mRNA fragments safely. Before Dr. Karikó’s work, the mRNA fragments caused an severe inflammatory response that made the vaccines dangerous. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Moderna had 11 different vaccines in various stages of clinical development, with only two in phase 2 trials. But unless you were an mRNA vaccine expert, you probably never heard of Moderna.

There’s probably a lot more than this, but my coffee is running out, and I don’t want this list to go on forever. Maybe you know of an obvious one or two that I missed, so leave it in the comments.

Our time travelers from 2019 saw what was happening, and they decided they never wanted to see 2022, 2021, or 2020 ever again. They’re going to warn Donald Trump that this plague is coming — oh wait, I think I saw that movie, it didn’t work.

Michael Simpson

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