As we approach the one-year mark of when we were all first introduced to the ideas of social distancing, quarantining, and remote learning, many people are tired of the COVID-19 restrictions and wondering how on Earth our case numbers are still rising while other nations are seemingly corona-free. It is only natural to want to blame the rising case numbers on certain individuals; everyone wants the world to return to the time before facemasks and Zoom school, but public shaming and condemning individuals is not the right way to put an end to the pandemic.
Diana Duong, a journalist for CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) news, acknowledges that public shaming is not a new response to public health crises. Anti-smoking campaigns often use shaming messages to inspire smokers to break their habit, and many brands have done this successfully, like the truth initiative. However, in other instances like obesity, HIV or fetal alcohol syndrome, the outcome is often worse for individuals as a result of shaming.
Many people will try to deal with their health issues in isolation to avoid being ridiculed, which could lead to other problems like stress, depression or substance abuse. In an article by The New Yorker, Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at New York University, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up, “a lot of opportunity with shaming.” Online shaming and “cancel culture,” have become extremely popular during the last year, and that can be attributed to the countless screenshots, videos and photos posted online of people ignoring public health guidelines.
Every week we see a new video of someone refusing to put on a mask while walking around in a store or photos of celebrities throwing parties without a single mask in view. Although this infuriates people, and some may think these people deserve to be shamed for putting others’ lives at risk, condemning individuals online may deter them from contributing positively to their community later on.
According to the same article written by Diana Duong, Ian Culbert who is an executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association agrees, stating that when public shaming begins, “it makes the person feel inadequate or like they’ve failed at something, and therefore takes away their incentive or sometimes even their ability to make a change for the better.” With more shaming of those who contract COVID-19 comes less transparency about the path of the virus, ultimately affecting the tracing process and putting more people at risk.
According to this same article once again, Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, claims, “What we want to do is convince them [the public] to want to do the right thing, so we want to strengthen any tendency they might have to do what we’re all doing and be like us, rather than draw a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” Creating a division in communities does nothing to achieve the universal goal of ending the pandemic for everyone.
Dr. Hertzmark, a professor here at Fairfield University in the health studies department, agrees with Joordens. She says, “I think in most instances, public shaming creates anger and confrontation forcing people to get defensive which shuts down all lines of communication.” People live in fear of what will happen to them or their family if they get sick. Defensiveness is warranted, and everyone has a right to express their emotions, so we mustn’t suppress others’ feelings in an attempt to coerce others to follow regulations.
Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist, says that positive modeling and introducing risk reduction approaches to everyday activities is more beneficial than shaming. Creating new, engaging ways to have fun while still following restrictions creates a sense of community and hope. Oftentimes, hearing what should be done is not enough to convince people to do the right thing; Joordens says that people will display caution and consideration for the welfare of others when they are shown the effect their actions can have on others directly. For instance, hearing, reading, or seeing videos of others sharing their stories forces people to acknowledge the potential harm they can cause with disregard to public health regulations.
Dr. Hertzmark says, “Most people respond to accurate facts and figures especially when presented in non-threatening ways. I think using simple posters that are publicly displayed that highlight the benefits of staying home when feeling sick, wearing masks, testing, etc. works better for getting people to do their part in keeping everyone safe.” We must continue to inform ourselves and others about the pandemic protocols. Education, not ridicule, has the potential to stop the spread of COVID. Easy-to-follow images and video tutorials are judgment-free and do not diminish anyone’s emotions. They are the most effective way to unify everyone in this time of uncertainty.
Some healthcare workers like Dr. Naheed Dosani believe it is their duty as healthcare professionals to challenge the “countercultural movement against science.” However, these groups can be challenged and educated instead of shamed. Positive reinforcement of those doing the right thing is important to display to the public eye. For instance, according to BBC News, the German government released videos praising couch potatoes as #specialheroes. One of the adverts is an older man expressing that when he felt like the fate of the country was in his hands he did what was expected of him, “nothing. Absolutely nothing.” The videos are funny, heartwarming and encourage people to take the reins in the attempt to decrease the spread of COVID.
Digital shaming has impacted individuals across the globe. People are being labeled as, “super spreaders,” and receiving death threats from strangers online. In the same article by the New Yorker, Lawrence Garbuz, a resident of New Rochelle, NY, attended a funeral and B’nai mitzvah before he visited the Bronxville hospital, where he received an ordinary pneumonia diagnosis. His family visited him while he was ill, a Jewish tradition, but later on, he developed more severe symptoms. He was given a COVID-19 diagnosis and was placed in a medically induced coma just four days later.
Unknowingly, Garbuz had been at the center of a COVID-19 outbreak in his area. Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Garbuz’s workplace and the schools his children attended with intentions to alert those in the area about the possible contact. Before they knew it, the Garbuz family was being attacked online. They were receiving death threats, people were wishing that Lawrence lost his job, and calling him vulgar names. D. T. Max’s article in The New Yorker highlights other victims of public shaming and the long-term effects it has had on victims.
Dr. Hertzmark discussed the issue of shaming in COVID with her class. Her class was eager to talk about the topic. She said, “Most of the students had dealt with COVID outbreaks during the Fall 2020 semester while living on the beach. Many of the students seemed resigned to the fact that COVID had spread through their beach community and seemed accepting of it.” Some students though, she shared, are mad at their peers for putting the community at risk. She is certain that those emotions are warranted, especially when others are doing everything they can to follow Fairfield’s COVID restrictions. Hertzmark’s class was most frustrated with students showing symptoms and continuing to attend functions. Assumptions and rumors are spread easily through word of mouth, and it is easy to judge others and label individuals as “superspreaders,” but it is necessary to recognize that rumors are not always trustworthy. Dr. Hertzmark noted that her students did not harbor any ill will for their peers in the long run.
Public shaming further divides the nation, and before you comment on the actions of others, we should step back and think about how we can work to share engaging risk reduction approaches. We must continue to hear others’ stories, listen to those who have suffered first hand on the frontlines, and work not to condemn others but to convince them to work alongside science to get us on the right path to ending the pandemic.