Admit it: You have judged someone for coming down with COVID-19 this year. I know you’ve done it, and I’ve done it, too. That’s why there’s a growing stigma around people who contract COVID-19. It’s human nature to make comparisons, and this year has been hard. COVID-19 turned our world upside down, and it’s only natural to look at people who have gotten the virus and wonder if they’ve been careful. The minute someone comes down with the virus, we start our unofficial layperson’s risk-analysis, combing through everything we know about them for clues about where they picked up this nasty illness.
We feel for doctors, nurses, teachers and other essential workers when they contract the virus in the process of doing their jobs. We have empathy for people who seem to be “doing everything right,” and they get the virus anyway.
But when we hear that our acquaintance on social media who never misses a chance to cram herself into a crowded bar just tested positive, we roll our eyes. We saw it coming. She was totally not following recommendations. While we’re sitting home, sacrificing things like haircuts and holidays with the people we love, she’s out doing shots and dancing. She deserves the virus, and we deserve our health.
It’s okay to be frustrated with people who aren’t doing their part to end this thing, but as soon as they actually get COVID-19, it’s our job to dig deep into our own wells of empathy and understanding, and do our absolute best not to shame them.
If someone has thrown caution to the wind, getting COVID-19 is the consequence of their actions. That’s bad enough. We need to be careful not to attach additional social consequences like stigma around COVID-19 and shame for contracting it to the physical consequence of the illness. Not just for the sake of the individual—but for everyone’s greater good.
I know. It can be annoying. They didn’t do their job being careful. Why should we have more respect for them than they did for the rest of us?
I’ll tell you why.
This growing stigma around COVID-19 infection is making the pandemic worse.
According to infectious disease epidemiologist Julia Marcus in an interview with HuffPost, “What ends up happening is, rather than engaging with public health, people want to hide from it. Instead of deterring risky behavior, we end up deterring disclosure.”
We need people to feel comfortable being honest about their illness. They should be calling direct contacts, staying home until they are no longer contagious or ill, and containing their illness, not spreading it.
Regardless of how they contracted the virus, once they’ve got it, it’s time for empathy. The only thing stigma and shame will do is cause people to hide or lie about their symptoms, avoid getting tested, and screw up the entire contact tracing process.
The stigma around COVID-19 really only serves to make those of us who are following all the safety recommendations feel superior. That overconfidence is misplaced, out of line, and rude. I’m talking to myself here, too. No matter how careful you are, unless every member of your family is able to truly stay in your home and never interact with any other person at all, you are at some risk of contracting COVID-19. It’s our job to limit those risks wherever we can, but not every case is born of irresponsibility.
It might feel good to treat people like they voluntarily chose to harbor the plague. You’re frustrated or angry, and you just want to separate your choices from theirs as much as possible. But it doesn’t actually help anyone. It’s comfortable to pretend that our safety measures are foolproof, and we are at zero risk of COVID-19 infection, but for a great deal of us, that’s just not the case, and we need to keep that in mind.
My husband’s colleague exposed him to COVID-19 at work recently. My husband works on a National Guard unit, tabulating pandemic-related expenditures, including the cost of manning testing sites. He has to go to work in person because he has to do the work in a secure environment. Luckily, when his co-worker came to work and tested positive the same day, the strict safety protocol in his office kept us safe. We didn’t get sick.
Even though my husband just went to work, I felt a little bit of guilt for coming in contact with the virus at all. That might sound absurd, but that’s what pandemic stigma does. Imagine how I would have felt if I was exposed in a social setting. I might not have told anyone.
Stigma creates guilt and shame. Shame is not an effective motivator. Ask any fat person, addict or alcoholic. Shame doesn’t make people lose weight, stop drinking, or quit drugs. Ask a person with HIV or mental illness if living under the weight of social stigma has been a cure for them.
We’ve been attaching shame to certain illnesses and behaviors forever, but they haven’t disappeared. Shame is not going to end the COVID-19 pandemic, either.
No matter how exasperating it might feel to give everyone the same level of empathy regardless of how they came in contact with COVID, according to all the public health experts, that’s exactly what we need to do.
In an essay for the Boston Globe, Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine doctor who is currently working as an independent consultant to the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, summed it up: “If the public’s response to people becoming infected with COVID-19 is judgment, scorn, or reprehension, we will fail to control this epidemic. Ultimately, the virus doesn’t care how we feel about one another; but stopping it will absolutely depend on it.”
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