A recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch called “Thanks, COVID” — a satirical advertisement promoting getting infected with a virus that’s killed over a million Americans — has prompted a swell of criticism, especially from people with immunodeficiencies and disabilities, long COVID sufferers and those who’ve lost loved ones to the pandemic.
The sketch, tweeted by the “Saturday Night Live” account on Nov. 6, shows three people who tested positive for COVID-19 enjoying, as the voiceover calls it, a “guaranteed … five and sometimes even 10-day vacation from all of life’s problems.” One of the characters grabs a backpack and heads to a cabin; another spends the week in her bed, not working but still getting paid by her employer; and a third stays at home alone after her husband leaves with three rowdy kids.
“I needed a break, just some time away from everyone, so my doctor suggested I get COVID, and it was the greatest week of my life,” one character tells the camera.
“At first, I was worried about getting COVID, but my doctor assured me it’s fine that I’m triple vaxxed, quadruple if you count HPV,” says another.
Then the voiceover quips, “Side effects of COVID include having COVID, which is still kind of bad, but doesn’t it seem different now?”
One character explains that her symptoms were like a bad cold, and shortly after, the sketch references a few telltale long COVID signs.
“There might be long-term memory problems, but that would honestly be amazing because there’s so much I want to forget,” one actor says.
“My brain’s already really bad. If it gets 10% worse but I don’t have to talk to a single person for a week, I’ll take that deal in a horse beat,” adds another, poking fun at brain fog, which can causes challenges with language.
“COVID, go ahead, you deserve a break,” the ad concludes.
While some social media users appreciated the sketch, praising the underlying message that it’s far too difficult to take time off in the U.S., it was met with many accusations of being tone deaf, given the damage the pandemic has and continues to cause.
COVID was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2021, and 2,500 people died from COVID in the first week of November 2022, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent report from the Brookings Institute estimates long COVID has put 4 million Americans out of work.
In the U.S., nearly a quarter of private sector workers and more than two-thirds of lower wage workers don’t have paid sick leave, according to Pew Research Center. This means they have to choose between missing a paycheck or infecting other people if they get COVID, Dr. Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told TODAY. Worldwide, more than 10.5 million children have lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID.
“When it had killed 100,000 of us it was tragic. Now we’re up over a million, it’s the third leading cause of death in the country, it’s still killing 3,000 people a week, and it’s a joke?” tweeted one person.
“Poor taste after it took so many lives, including my daughter,” another commented on Instagram.
Spokespeople for “Saturday Night Live,” an NBCUniversal property alongside TODAY, did not respond to TODAY’s request for comment.
Massachusetts-based COVID activist Jennifer Ritz Sullivan, who works with nonprofit Marked by COVID and whose mother died from the coronavirus in December 2020, told TODAY she found the sketch “incredibly offensive as somebody who lost someone (and) as an immune-compromised person who’s high risk for COVID and still has the potential of dying from this disease.”
“We’ve all had experiences with the pandemic, and people feel very much like they can speak to it. However, not everybody has had a similar experience, and that sketch showed me a whole lot of privilege,” she said.
Ritz Sullivan, 38, said that because she’s disabled and her husband is an essential worker, COVID has “never been a vacation. … We’ve lived in fear, and we’ve had to struggle to survive through numerous hurdles.” She emphasized that the pandemic has hit other groups, such as people of color, even harder.
“We’re making jokes about it, like, ‘Oh, take my kids, it’s a vacation.’ I don’t know many essential workers who can take paid time off like that,” she said.
The sketch made her so emotional because it sent the message that “my mom’s death is a joke. I’m already so aware that people viewed my mom as disposable,” Ritz Sullivan said, adding that she was a fan of “SNL,” once waiting in line for tickets, so it felt extra hurtful.
“People are still dying every day, but people have become numb to it. I think that (this sketch) adds to that numbness,” she said.
Allison Guy, a member of the Body Politic COVID-19 support group who suffers from long COVID, said she didn’t watch the sketch out of fear that it would send her spiraling. Her journey with the condition started in February 2021 and has led to days where she was unable to read, write or follow the plot of a basic TV show. She can’t work full-time and has tried get disability payments, but didn’t qualify.
“It’s scary that as a culture we’re now treating COVID so lightly that it deserves tongue-in-cheek ‘SNL’ sketches,” she said. It “(trivializes) something horrible and life-ruining.”
Guy, 37, deals with misconceptions about long COVID often because people tend to underestimate the severity of her symptoms.
“True fatigue is when simply lifting up your phone to send a text message is too exhausting,” she said. “For a healthy person to be blasé about getting infected … it’s really dangerous, and I don’t want anyone to have to experience how hard it is to be disabled in the United States. … People don’t realize how far you can fall from a COVID infection.”
Morita said that while she believes “humor does help us cope with hard times … the devastation (from COVID) has simply been too great to be laughing about it at this point, particularly when we know that people aren’t really getting COVID vaccines because they’re not taking it seriously.”
“People who can laugh at that video are people who actually have access to privileges like insurance, paid leave, affordable childcare … but you can’t really laugh at it if you don’t,” or if you’re one of the millions at risk for severe disease, she said.
“The pandemic really has revealed a harsh truth about life in America,” Morita added. “The ability to protect yourself and your family is still influenced a lot by your skin color and income level.”
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