COVID "Bullshit Jobs" Are Driving Everyone Crazy, Including TV Crews!
A few weeks ago I’d just finished watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, a highly amusing TV show, and as the post-episode credits rolled, I happened to notice that a large number of people — 14, to be exact — were listed as performing a whole slate of new jobs associated with COVID. They had newly-invented job titles like “COVID Data Analyst” and “COVID Digital Tracking.” As sometimes is my inclination, I tweeted the observation, with the added comment that this personnel seemed representative of the burgeoning COVID bureaucracies which have taken hold across all manner of institutions.
I wasn’t condemning the existence of the personnel, per se — it’s not some major crime against humanity for HBO to spend a bunch of money on jobs with questionable utility. After all, the US economy is already suffused with a vast over-abundance of “bullshit jobs,” so why should I have any particular scorn for these latest examples? My intention was mainly to highlight the rapid proliferation of this new category of bullshit jobs — a true growth industry, having emerged thanks to all the manifold business opportunities afforded by COVID.
Bullshit or not, these COVID jobs also happen to be intertwined with an array of public and private bureaucracies which exert varying degrees of control over people’s lives. And while the production process of Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily have a direct bearing on government policy, the practices of the film and TV industry do shed light on how such bureaucracies have, over time, increasingly entrenched themselves as quasi-permanent fixtures of ordinary life. If you need to hire 14 people for COVID duty on the Curb Your Enthusiasm set, just think of how many other COVID-based bureaucracies are flying beneath the surface elsewhere throughout society.
The reaction to this seemingly benign observation was one of the strangest eruptions of outrage I’ve ever experienced on Twitter — and I’ve experienced quite a few. People were utterly infuriated by it. Entertainment websites I’d never heard of felt moved to write indignant articles about my throwaway tweet, as did Zombie Gawker — a sad, unfunny shell of its former self that I’d forgotten existed. Legions of commentators far and wide were appalled that I’d expressed insufficient reverence for these important COVID jobs: how dare I cast aspersion on the livelihoods of hardworking crew members? Don’t I want people to have jobs? The brave men and women of the film/TV industry rallied to denounce my disgusting arrogance.
Then, as tends to happen with these little blowups, the private messages soon started trickling in — and they told a slightly different story. This time, they came from other people working in the TV/film industry who wanted to tell me about the ridiculously mind-bending COVID protocols they still have to deal with — the same kinds of protocols presumably enforced by the Curb Your Enthusiasm crew I’d highlighted. These correspondents relayed their stories furtively, reminiscent of how you often hear people in other fields privately commiserate about COVID-related stupidities. Such discretion is seen as especially necessary in liberal-skewing industries, because offending the sensibilities of COVID-paranoid peers/colleagues/potential employers could be a significant professional risk. So the skeptics must repair to the DMs.
That’s why, as usual, I’m giving anonymity to the people I spoke with. (The fact that repercussions are still so widely feared for speaking out of school on this subject is another matter.) I’m also reproducing the raw text of our communications, without modifying the casual internet grammar.
Having seen my tweet and the ensuing backlash, someone who works on a different show that currently airs on HBO wrote privately to tell me: “this last season everyone was so fucking fed up with the covid compliance ppl. Kept us from bonding w our coworkers and we just hid from them and broke the rules.”
The person continued: “All of our desks were like 10 ft apart and had to wear masks and couldn’t hear anyone speak. They didn’t want us to hang out outside of work and told us not to hang out w anyone really outside of work.” The person said an elaborate system of “signals and codes” had to be developed for crew members to warn each other when the Compliance Officer was coming, so they could quickly put on their masks and pretend to be on their best behavior. “It felt really awkward and bad to have this person watching over us trying to catch us all the time.”
I also heard from someone who’d recently worked on a show for the Apple TV streaming service, who recounted:
“It was extremely bureaucratic - it was kind of sad, too, because the COVID workers were treated so poorly by the top tier people. When the Covid workers just wanted to get close to the film/tv world […] Covid workers were way more scared of asking an executive or actor to put on their mask, but would frequently push mandates on the regular departments (electric, grips)”
The person continued: “Also, wearing masks made the whole thing more impersonal. People are on sets for 12-14 hours sometimes, and wearing a mask that long is not only uncomfortable, but also weirdly destructive of a sense of community”
Asked whether the wider crew generally thought these measures were necessary, the person said: “It was mixed, but over time it felt like theater - especially when they were implementing the rules when the majority of us were vaxxed and infection numbers across the US were excruciatingly low.”
A member of the COVID staff for a Netflix production told me: “Most covid compliance people want to do other things in the industry. I want to be a writer so I’m taking the money while I can get it and when the gig goes away I’m not gonna cry about it… I lucked into this job in the first place and it’s not something anyone’s thinking of doing for a career.”
Yes, I know: people working on TV/movie sets who must abide by crazy COVID rules are not the most beleaguered victims on the planet. Neither are the elite college students I’ve previously reported on, who’ve also been subjected to some of the most ridiculously stringent rules. But the point isn’t to demand sympathy for any of these people (although I do think in some cases they deserve it). Rather, it’s to underscore that, even at this seemingly late date, their lives continue to be inordinately governed by hyper-paranoid COVID rules which impede normal relations — long past the time “normalcy” was supposed to have returned. And for this you can largely thank the new COVID bureaucracies, which show no sign of ever going away, especially if their indefinite existence can be justified on the ground of providing “jobs” — even if no one can really defend the utility of said jobs. (Also known as “bullshit jobs.”)
One of the people on the Curb Your Enthusiasm COVID crew actually ended up replying to my original tweet — of course in that obligatorily ironic, look-at-how-stupid-this guy-is manner. So in a gesture of goodwill, I contacted her (Avalon Penrose) to ask what her purported job in “COVID Logistics” entailed. You know, just some basic information about what she does on a daily basis presiding over “COVID Logistics” for Curb Your Enthusiasm — so I could deepen my understanding of this job which hordes of angry commenters had just been telling me was profoundly important.
She replied: “haha im not super interested in having a conversation about my work with you, but thanks for asking. feel free to screenshot this message though and twist it however you’d like to further push your bureaucracy narrative!”
Well, there was no need to screenshot: copy/paste is fine. Upon further inquiry, I couldn’t help but notice that Avalon Penrose, who had been endowed with this extremely weighty “public health” position, has an interesting background for someone charged with managing such a daunting epidemiological task. She was previously a “Life Coach” at the UCLA Bruin Resource Center, according to her LinkedIn, and starred in YouTube videos such as these:
She’s also done voiceover work for video games like “Fallout 76” and “Pistol Whip.” Which, good for her!
But I would hope that Larry David could see the comedy inherent in such an individual suddenly transforming into a “COVID Logistics” expert, whose “public health” decrees must be studiously complied with in the name of “safety” or whatever. C’mon, that’s just funny. I got a nice laugh out of it, anyway. And look: I’m not going to begrudge anyone who wants to work in the film/TV industry for seizing upon whatever fleeting job opportunities become available to them, like the Netflix person I quoted above. Respect the hustle and so forth. But that doesn’t detract from the fundamental absurdity of a situation where people who otherwise would have no conceivable involvement in executing “public health” initiatives are thrust into these roles, and consequently attain a veneer of scientific authority. But such is the logic of COVID bureaucracies, which can consume as much as 20% of a movie’s total budget.
These well-funded and morally-righteous bureaucracies — constantly generating, collecting, and propagating “data” of dubious value — are a big reason why we are currently undergoing yet another wave of hysterics vis-a-vis “Omicron.” Which I reserve the right to pronounce as “Oh, c’mon.” Cornell University really got the ball rolling this week when it suddenly shuttered campus during Finals, allegedly due to a scary increase of suspected Omicron “cases.” Others followed suit with more “here we go again”-type restrictions, such as barring student social gatherings. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. took the opportunity to mandate “boosters” for the next academic period. Each of these colleges has its own little COVID bureaucracy, often populated by the types of people who pre-2020 would’ve been writing memos on parking decals and roommate disputes — but who today routinely promulgate infectious disease regulations. I’ve previously noted one college COVID official whose professional specialization is “Queer Theory and Activism.”
I’m not in any position to offer firm predictions on the severity of “Omicron.” But if these colleges did not have self-justifying COVID bureaucracies set up — complete with elaborate “surveillance testing” and “contact tracing” regimes — it’s doubtful that most students who “tested positive” this week would have ever even noticed anything out of the ordinary. The colleges themselves are saying that virtually all of the recent “cases” detected are either extremely mild or totally asymptomatic. If any danger is perceived, it’s because some bleary-eyed administrator is manically refreshing their little “COVID-19 Dashboard,” tracking minute-by-minute the “test results” which students are compelled to submit or face disciplinary sanction.
It’s the bureaucracies which are therefore the proximate cause of the ensuing freakout, not COVID. Scan social media and you’ll see countless people report that they now fear a positive test result more than they fear the actual disease. COVID has long ago morphed into a kind of holistic system of thought, sustained by bureaucratic and financial interests — the ones that demand everyone be constantly testing, tracing, isolating, boosting. It’s this system of thought which now turns a sniffle (or less) into a personal healthcare catastrophe. And yet the standard assumption is that the people who comprise these anxiety-inducing bureaucracies are owed our unyielding deference, even when a few years ago their main intellectual output was posting “Rap Battle” videos on YouTube.