Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Long Live the Common Cold

If colds disappeared, we would lose one of life’s most valuable little trials.

Human attempts to bring about heaven on earth are generally thought to have fallen out of favor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but during the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the ruling classes have shown us otherwise. This time, the elites’ idea of utopia is a world in which they no longer cough, sneeze, or blow their nose. 

In December 2020, during a moment of what might be considered peak optimism about the vaccines, New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope spoke for many when she admitted that she would continue wearing a mask in the future, “particularly during cold and flu season.” She explained: “I used to get sick all the time, but I haven’t had a cold or sore throat in months. I really like not getting sick!” Let us applaud her for her candor: The elites didn’t want merely to avoid the coronavirus but to steer clear of “getting sick” altogether—now it makes sense!

A year later, they are still at it. As any trip to an average suburban grocery store will reveal, a lot of people behave as though they feel they have acquired the tools to evade airborne viruses completely: People wear masks, scoot sideways to avoid others in aisles, and lurch awkwardly if they cross paths with an unexpected passerby. Since one can safely assume that anyone who displays such militant risk-aversion has been vaccinated and boosted against Covid-19, it’s also fair to assume that these people aren’t just trying to avert breakthrough infections but, like Parker-Pope, the regular old common cold, too.

Wait a minute, though: Do we really want to live in a world in which ordinary, run-of-the-mill cold viruses are forever extinguished? Setting aside the fact that the present cold and flu season—which has persisted in spite of mass masking and social distancing among the public—proves the unfeasibility of such a prospect, it seems obvious that most of us would miss the annual rite of passage that is catching a cold.

To start with, if colds went away tomorrow, an entire subcategory of desirable social norms would disappear with them. Sneezing has taken on the quality of a taboo in the current environment, but during earlier, pre-coronavirus times, the act invited words of courtesy. “Gesundheit,” some people used to say to sneezers in their midst. Or: “God bless you.” Or simply: “Bless you.”

Before the coronavirus changed the way we thought about communicable illnesses, family members who came down with a runny nose, sore throat, or similar symptoms typically were treated with warm deference. Adults were given license to stay home from work and remain in bed all day—not out of medical necessity but because, the thinking went, their sickness gave them the “right” to slack off. Children, of course, were allowed to stay home from school. Chicken soup was generously ladled into bowls. Kleenex boxes were stockpiled. Motherly pleas to “take it easy” were made. The television set was switched on, even during hours of the day when the TV might not usually be watched. How many of us saw our first daytime talk show or soap opera while sniffling? These are habits worth preserving—call it the culture of the common cold.

In fact, being mildly ill with a cold could be an attractive proposition—witness the illnesses faked by Elliott in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Ferris Bueller in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Note, too, the extremely calm reactions to Elliott’s and Ferris’s faux illnesses by their respective parental figures; neither Elliott’s mom nor Ferris’s mom and dad recoiled from their sons out of fear of “catching” something. 

If colds disappeared, we would lose one of life’s most valuable little trials. Coming down with a cold is invigoratingly unpleasant: the sandpapery throat, the overfull nostrils, the dulling of taste (this is spoken of as if it’s a coronavirus-specific symptom, but it’s been a feature of every cold I’ve ever had). Yet it is good that we should suffer so. The experience not only gives the immune system a welcome workout but the soul a necessary lesson in endurance: We are reminded that life will never be entirely free of discomfort, but that most species of discomfort—with patience and a little soup—will pass. There are few sensations more pleasurable than soldiering through a cold and within a few days experiencing that sense of sweet renewal.

Yet those who wear masks and jitterbug in the bread aisle to avoid other humans think they have found a kind of elixir, a way to avoid even the slightest bit of discomfort. Of course, the viruses that cause the cold and flu will prove them wrong, but the pandemic itself has shown so many unthinkable things to be possible—houses of worship closed, businesses classified “nonessential,” school conducted over computer screens, and vaccine proofs requested to go about daily life—that it’s no wonder that some imagine that they can go the rest of their lives without ever again being told “Bless you.”

For the rest of us, though, the present moment offers a golden opportunity to fortify our character: We can, in that same grocery store, walk mask-less through the aisles, more focused on the expiration date on the milk than whether another person is standing closer than six feet to us. We can tempt fate that someone, somewhere, might have a cold, flu, or even the omicron variant, and that we might get it, too—and that it won’t be the end of the world. It’s not exactly Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of the strenuous life, but, these days, it’s not nothing. 

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review