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Secrecy and shame in the age of COVID-19

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The other day, I overheard my friend reveal to a family member that her friend had tested positive for coronavirus.

She shared this information like someone might share a secret. The two agreed that the news certainly made sense in light of the friend’s recent unexplained behavior, which included leaving her university’s campus a mere week after move-in and wearing a mask in her own home.

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While my own friend seemed most shocked by this discovery that her friend had the virus in the first place, I found myself more perplexed as to why her friend had felt the need to “hide” her COVID-19 status.

Why did she feel the need to lie? Was she afraid about worrying her friends? While that may explain the initial lie, it fails to account for the continual need for secrecy and discretion. True, she may not have been rigidly following social distancing protocols before her diagnosis, but she had returned home to self-isolate the moment she had tested positive.

The spread of coronavirus is surely to blame for the pandemic we face today. Yet beneath the surface something else has been spreading – fear. People are afraid of the virus. They are afraid of falling ill, of unknowingly passing on the disease to others, of having to isolate themselves for long periods of time. Contagion is scary. So, what happens when you actually contract the disease and become a carrier?

My friend’s story of her friend’s secrecy seems to suggest the overriding reaction is one of shame. Yes, there is shame in going out and about when you know you are infected — in many ways, rightly so. But there is also shame in contracting COVID-19 even if you react in the responsible way by self-isolating and seeking treatment. 

That we live in a society where those who contract coronavirus feel this unjustified guilt shows the dangers of the “save-yourself-at-all-costs” attitude that has become commonplace during this crisis. This focus on self-preservation can lead to cruelty in the face of danger and fear, causing people to impose feelings of guilt on the infected “other.”

Upon flying home to Australia after the campus shutdown, I had the privilege of experiencing this “COVID-shaming” firsthand. I intended to spend my mandatory two-week post-international-travel quarantine at my grandparents’ beach house, which would have allowed me more space to move about as opposed to my 200-square-foot bedroom I would be confined to at home. My aunt quickly vetoed this idea, however, as she complained to my grandparents that she’d prefer if I did not leave germs behind and expose her family to infection — just in case her family wished to visit the beach house at some point in the future.

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Her argument, of course, went against logic. I was not infected. She did not plan on going to the same house until more than a month after my departure. The coronavirus does not survive on surfaces for one week, let alone a month.

But even the question of my possible infection relegated me to a persona non grata, and to be honest, I felt a sting of shame when my grandmother told me not to come to the beach house. In a time when I was feeling vulnerable, this rejection made me feel like a liability to my own family — unwelcome and unwanted at a time when I felt at my most isolated.

Of course, none of this is new. From leprosy to HIV, society has always judged and ostracized those with infectious diseases. But if there is one thing this global pandemic should be teaching us, it is that contagion does not discriminate between blue collar workers or company CEOs, or from incarcerated people to Presidents.

We have suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths at the hands of this virus. Our response to this suffering should not be irrational fear of those who may have been exposed, but rather compassion and understanding of their vulnerability. Never before have we faced such isolation, with most of our lives taking place on a Zoom screen from the confines of our homes. We need not exacerbate such isolation by pushing away those who are suffering the most.

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Kindness and common sense go a long way in removing the stigma around those who may already be suffering. It is our responsibility and moral obligation as human beings to offer nothing less to those who have contracted an illness that, in one way or another, is affecting us all.

Claudia Frykberg is a junior in the Department of English. She can be reached at frykberg@princeton.edu.

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