In late August, as we were trudging toward our sixth month of covering COVID-19, we got a call from an upset restaurant owner.
He was annoyed because one of our reporters had asked about his restaurant closing because of a second positive COVID-19 case on his staff. He felt he was doing the right thing by closing his dining room, and yet, the Verona Press, a sister publication to the Oregon Observer, was still calling to ask about it.
In this pandemic, our role as reporters has changed from one of telling the story of our community to helping keep it safe. And it has come with some resistance – to some, it might feel we’ve become the tattletales, rather than the history keepers.
I suspect part of that might be the side effect of us living in the midst of a pandemic that is highly stigmatized.
It’s not just about whether or not you’ve gotten sick, but also whether you’ve chosen to do things that were once ordinary and celebrated – go to a restaurant, see family members, host a party – but now some consider disregard for human life.
The circumstances we have been forced to live in are not the fault of everyday Americans. Like it or not, the federal government has shown incredible contempt for its citizens when Congress keeps shooting down aid that comes in the form of our own tax dollars. Our leaders think either the amount of aid isn’t enough or that giving people $600 a week will cause them to permanently sit at home.
To pile on, we have a president who said in a recorded interview he prefers to downplay the effects of the pandemic to avoid panic even after he has gotten sick, without acknowledging the fact that he got better health care, with a team of a dozen doctors and every treatment they could throw at him, than anyone else has in this country. But over 210,000 Americans are dead, and there still appears to be no nationwide strategy.
The moral decisions of what to do during a pandemic should never have fallen on the shoulders of individuals, school districts or county governments. But that’s where we’re at.
With the spread of COVID-19 so strongly tied to our individual morals, there’s a real fear of how you will be perceived if you contract the illness or if you spread it. Depending on whom you tell, saying that you had COVID-19 will elicit a response of, “Hey, I’m really sorry to hear that, hope you’re feeling OK,” or “You sorta deserved after you threw that party, don’t you think?”
Human nature then takes over. Rather than telling people you were infected, you might conceal it for fear of retribution.
Ultimately, fear of the stigma keeps us more sick than healthy.
That’s likely exactly what the restaurant owner feared when we called him in August – if the Verona Press runs something about my restaurant having to close for a COVID-19 case, what does that say about my ability to run a restaurant that is safe?
And I’m sure that’s similar to what some parents in Washington and Ozaukee counties thought last week when they sent their kids to class in more than two dozen schools despite having a known case of COVID-19 in their household. Either they didn’t care about the implications for other people or there’s a sense of personal shame they didn’t want to confront.
Having a stigma around receiving a COVID-19 positive test – and almost having it double as a diagnosis of a bad character – is driving us deeper into this illness. It makes it shameful to quarantine or close a business temporarily, when that’s what everyone should be doing without a second thought.
Shame surrounding an illness is not new. In the 1980s, as AIDS was tearing through communities, it was treated as a moral failing.
People who had HIV or AIDS were told that they deserved to get sick because they had made bad lifestyle choices, and they were isolated by family members, health care workers and their community because of a disease. That resistance ended up leading to more death and suffering than should have been permissible.
The consequences for both COVID-19 and AIDS are much higher than spreading a common cold or the flu, and precautions should be taken to reduce the spread of any illness, regardless of what lasting effects it leaves.
That means we all should wear a mask everywhere you go outside of your own home. We should be conscious of how close we are to other people and follow the current public health advice.
In the meantime, until we can collectively become more empathetic toward one another and reduce the stigma and politicization of a positive COVID-19 test, we are going to continue to see people continue to deliberately disobey the public health guidance, hide their positive test results or have general disregard for others.
And that’s not going to make any of us healthier.