I was like many young Americans two Friday nights ago. I had heard of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, covid-19, but did not approach it with any kind of fear, so I went out. I had drinks in New Orleans’s French Quarter with friends, not hugging goodbye until well past midnight. Within days, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards closed bars and made restaurants takeout only; coronavirus became an increasingly dire threat within the United States; and I developed a sore throat, unrelenting fatigue and a low-grade fever. A few days later, I was too short of breath to stand for extended periods of time and my coughing grew worse.
Though I was not able to access a test to confirm a covid-19 diagnosis, based on my symptoms and previous exposure to friends who had tested positive, my doctor said I had the disease. I now know those few hours in the French Quarter were reckless. Louisiana appears to have the fastest-growing rate of coronavirus infections in the world — not the country, the world, according to a University of Louisiana at Lafayette study — and our health-care system is not prepared to deal with the skyrocketing number of cases. Edwards predicted the state’s health-care system would be overwhelmed by the first week of April.
Two weeks ago, sipping a vodka soda, I did not see this coming.
I did, and still do, regret my actions, but I am not angry with myself for my past ignorance. After falling ill, I followed the public health guidelines at the time: I self-isolated and immediately alerted friends who I had come into contact with that they might have been exposed to coronavirus.
This is not everyone’s reaction to potential infection.
A friend of mine, D., whose first initial only is being used to protect her privacy, did the same thing I did two weeks ago — she went out for drinks and days later got sick with what she suspected was covid-19. She felt ashamed, she said, as if her body had been “weaponized.”
As D., who lives on the East Coast and like me, is in her 20s, got sicker, her panic and shame increased. She called her doctor and began to self-isolate, but did not want anyone to know she might have covid-19, especially if she had interacted with them the previous weekend. It was not the illness she dreaded, but her friends’ reactions. She worried they would blame her for spreading the virus, that this would damage her relationships. The few people she did tell agreed with her: It was best to stay quiet.
“I was scared to death to be the link in the chain … for people I know to be able to trace back and say, ‘this person in my life, their careless decision led me to bring this home, to my state, to my family,’” she said, adding: “I couldn’t sleep.”
Coronavirus is highly infectious, spreading from person to person like a flame across oil. Transmitted through respiratory droplets or infected surfaces and entering the body through the nose, eyes or mouth, coronavirus has infected more than 136,000 people in America, and claimed more than 2,400 lives in this country.
“Since we’re all naive to this particular coronavirus, we’re all susceptible to it,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiology professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. That shared susceptibility, along with the coronavirus’s ease of transmission, “has allowed it to just sweep through populations.”
That’s why, she said, we can’t place blame on — or openly shame — those who transmit the virus. As various nations have tried to stop the spread of illness, we’ve learned that to fight coronavirus, we need to know how broad its chest is. We need data. We need to know who is infected so we can prevent them from passing on the illness. Moreover, we need every American to practice social distancing. I wish I had done so sooner.
Social pressure can be a useful tool to encourage people to comply with the public health guidelines necessary to save lives. However, pressure can easily teeter into public shaming — which could make those who didn’t adhere to social distancing and then got sick afraid to speak up about their health status.
“People say, ‘Oh did you hear about this woman in Italy who didn’t listen to this,’ or ‘I know someone who went to that conference,’” my friend D. said. With collective fear and anxiety rising, people suspected of having covid-19 may become subjects of “gossip,” she added, and that’s “scary.”
Indeed, social media platforms showcase what has become known as quarantine shaming, the act of publicly chastising someone who breaks public health guidelines and thus risks spreading coronavirus.
Shaming and blaming does not stop with those who break self-quarantine or resist social distancing. The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, leading some to discriminate against Asian Americans. President Trump has repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” in public statements, even though the World Health Organization and other experts warn such language can fuel stigmatization. Recent data shows an uptick in racist acts directed at Asian Americans; a new website, Stop AAPI Hate, collected more than 650 reports of discriminatory behavior in its first eight days of operation.
“The easiest thing for some people is just to blame others,” said Arachu Castro, an infectious disease specialist and public health professor at Tulane’s school of public health.
Shane Chen, the chief operating officer of the Hope Clinic in Houston and an Asian American health advocate, said the fear of “being shamed and stigmatized,” combined with cultural values of privacy, may make some in her local Asian Asian community hesitant to disclose a covid-19 diagnosis with others.
Stigma and blame are misguided, the experts I spoke with said again and again. The coronavirus is no one’s fault. As for my friend D., whose symptoms have improved but who was never tested for covid-19, she still feels conflicted about speaking up.
“At the heart of it, I just don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said.
While Castro does not think it is necessary for every person who has covid-19 to publicly announce their diagnosis the way some celebrities do, she does think it is important to alert people you have recently interacted with if you do test positive.
“A majority of people with [coronavirus] symptoms, they’re gonna be okay,” Castro said. “But there’s a percentage that ... may develop a complication. And in those cases, the earlier they know about it, the better for their own health and also to prevent the transmission to others.”
It is crucially important that we encourage people to stay inside and away from others. To me — I’m currently on day 12 of self-quarantine — social distancing and isolation feel like a patriotic duty. However, the tools we use to promote this behavior matter. As we come together on the importance of separation, let’s make sure those who get sick can speak up and turn to their communities for support, not blame and stigmatization.
Emily Carmichael is a freelance writer based out of New Orleans.