COVID Shaming Doesn’t Work — So Why Does It Feel Like It Does?

Illustration by Vero Romero
Last weekend, I was snowshoeing through a trail in Massachusetts with a small group of friends when one pulled out her phone. I started to mug, but before she could take a picture, someone else made a request: “Can we not post to social media, please?” 
We were socially distanced, outdoors, masks on, and we’d all been COVID tested shortly before the outing — but he didn’t want it on the public record that he’d seen anyone other than his live-in partner. And honestly, I got it. I feel confident that I haven’t done anything to put anyone else at risk during this pandemic. But I’m still afraid of being judged. In fact, when I’d taken the day off work for the snowshoeing trip, I’d been purposefully vague about my plans to leave out the fact that I’d be leaving my apartment and seeing friends. And I’d already privately decided that any pics — even with no one in them — would stay off my socials. 
My fear is somewhat irrational (no one is thinking about me as much as I suspect), but also understandable. After all, I’ve spent the past year watching people get called out for not sticking to the rules. Videos and news stories about anti-maskers and weddings-turned-superspreading-events go viral. People subtweet about influencers, friends, coworkers, or acquaintances traveling too much, going out to eat, and attending or throwing parties. My group chats are full of the text equivalent of a side-eye: “Uh, we’re still in a pandemic, right?” 
I do it too. How could I resist? I’m being so careful, missing out on even socially distanced hangs that I desperately want to attend if, for example, I have plans to see my parents a few days later. Of course I feel frustrated when I watch people I kinda-know take all the trips I want to be taking, seemingly without guilt. That’s the subtext of so many of the shaming posts I see: They should feel bad!
And in that respect, publicly shaming is effective — it does make people feel bad. What it doesn’t do, however, is change their behavior. “If shaming worked, we'd be COVID-free by now. There's been so much of it going around at every level of society, even from our leadership,” says Katherine Alejandra Cross, a PhD student at the University of Washington’s School of Information. “COVID-shaming increases despair and isolation in an already profoundly isolating situation. And at the structural level, shaming serves to undermine public health orders. A culture of shaming as the modal lay response to the pandemic makes people shame averse rather than virus averse. They will strive to avoid shame or enforcement, which means they'll try harder not to get caught, and be much less open about their activities.” Cross says this is something researchers learned from the AIDS pandemic. “Shaming people for having unprotected sex wasn't nearly as effective at curbing the spread as creating a culture that supported safer sex,” she explains. 

"If shaming worked, we'd be COVID-free by now."

Katherine Alejandra Cross
What we have during the COVID-19 pandemic that we didn’t during the AIDS crisis is social media, points out Jen Balkus, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health: “The social media piece is really difficult. It’s an interesting and new part of how we’re all experiencing this pandemic.” It’s easy to make a snap judgment about a person’s behavior based on a post — no mask, big crowd — without fully understanding the context. It also makes it incredibly easy to publicly shame someone. Accounts like GaysOverCOVID are dedicated to doing just that. But, Dr. Balkus stresses, “Shaming of individuals is really not an effective tool. And the reason why is that it creates a barrier for individuals to take actions that could essentially protect themselves or others.” 
Public shaming can make people reluctant to speak up if they’ve been in a risky situation. An employee may not feel comfortable telling their manager that they may have been exposed and need to work from home, so they’ll come into work. Or they may not want to fess up to a friend they’re seeing that they recently attended an indoor, masks-off party. This behavior is unethical, of course; they’re preventing the people around them from making informed decisions about the level of risk they’re comfortable taking on. But more shaming isn’t the answer.
To be frank, no individual action will move the needle on this problem. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced throughout the pandemic is that public health isn’t meant to be something that’s filled with individual interventions and responses,” Dr. Balkus says.
The only thing that will help slow the spread of the virus is creating structural systems to be part of our public health response. There should be systems in place to encourage people to make protective decisions, Dr. Balkus says. If an employee knows that they’ll be paid for taking time off or working from home; if they know their manager will encourage them to stay home; and if they know their temperature will be checked upon entering their workplace, they’d be incentivized to not go into work post-exposure. If they’re afraid they’ll be treated with derision for admitting they’d been in a situation that allowed them to be exposed, they’ll be more likely to simply stay quiet.
“Consider this ‘look them in the eyes’ campaign from the UK government,” Cross says. “Note that bosses who force their employees to come to work in-person or wardens running unsanitary prisons, say, are not the ones being asked to look a dying COVID patient in the eye. It is the ordinary individual with no structural power.”
She says that one big benefit people get from shaming is a sense of control. But it’s false, and the more we get distracted by blaming each other, the less pressure gets put on the institutions that actually have the ability to incite significant structural changes. “For instance, paying restaurant workers to stay home and paying or cancelling business owners' rent (and everyone else's for that matter!) would go a very long way towards achieving the reduction in contact we need to manage this pandemic,” Cross says. “You need policies that incentivize whole chunks of the population to do the right thing. You move herds.”
Dr. Balkus believes that the ongoing vaccine rollout could complicate public shaming. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more frustration online,” she says. Same — not least because it’s something I’ve already started to see: People have been called out for posting post-vaccine selfies if they seem too young or healthy to have received a dose quite yet. 
On an individual level, something we can do, says Dr. Balkus, is praise people and institutions who are taking and implementing protective measures, being honest about how difficult it can be to do the things that keep us safe sometimes, and engaging in empathetic conversations are all better ways to nudge people toward positive actions than shaming. It’s important to be in open communication, especially with people you see regularly. But she also encourages us to respect the fact that it’s an incredibly — at times unbearably — emotional time, and we’re all doing the best we can with limited resources. 
“The bottom line is that whatever utility shame may have in enforcing social norms elsewhere, it is poison to public health,” Cross says. “When you only offer a sense of moral righteousness for doing the right thing, well, that doesn't put food on the table. In the midst of all this gloom it barely even nourishes one's soul. And we're made to feel that if we just yell at enough people on Twitter that'll put a meaningful dent in the [spread of the virus].”

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