The Static System of COVID-Shame in the United States

You would think that nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic that we would have moved away from the shock and subsequent shame that accompanies a positive diagnosis. A recent Pew Research study shows that 7 in 10 Americans know someone who has either been hospitalized or died from the virus. Think about that statistic:~70% of this country knows someone who has been admitted to the hospital due to complications associated with the virus or knows someone who has died directly from the virus. At no time in this country’s modern history have we had a virus so closely infiltrate our bubbles of safety. Yet, a pervasive streak of shame accompanies one of the biggest weapons we have in attenuating the virus: testing.

Over the Christmas holiday, I noticed celebrities, friends, and friends of friends proudly touting their negative test results from at-home kits and lab-certified PCR tests. Some of these results even had “CONGRATULATIONS” boldened across the top of a negative result. At first glance, these posts are rather innocuous; they’re badges of healthy honor! These posts say “I’m safe. I don’t have the virus. You do not have to fear me. I’m so safe that I will show you how safe I am!” Regardless of whether the test results are accurate (the majority of at-home tests do not detect the virus until the end of a 5–7-day incubation period), a negative test result is not a “get out of jail free card” or a prelude to a healthy few days ahead. Rather, they’re in-the-moment markers of an imperfect detection method. But if a negative test result is the only result that we desire or exalt then we are fostering a static system of COVID-shame.

So, how does my touting a negative COVID status implicate me in the static system of COVID-shame?

With no other virus or disease do we bestow accolades based on a binary test result. Folks have tried in the past to make diseases/viruses a moral debate, it has never worked out well for them. Now, some might argue that we celebrate results associated with cancer remission or the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV. In these contexts, we are rejoicing in the knowledge that a dangerous disease/virus has been eradicated from a body or, in the case of ART, kept at bay.

What are we celebrating when we display a negative COVID-19 test result?

Not much. Yet, we continue, knowingly or unknowingly, to perpetuate a climate of shame associated with having a positive result. In this binary system (either you are negative or you are positive) the choice between desired and undesired is static: you want a negative test result. Is that really, really what we want? Of course not! We want to encourage folks to get tested and get tested frequently. We want to know if Cousin Danny was asymptomatic at Christmas dinner but later started to display symptoms. We should appreciate his getting tested and alerting the family to potential exposure of the virus. With this news in hand, now we can choose to isolate or quarantine and potentially test more frequently. If a negative result is the only result we seek or exalt, then it makes sense when a person suspected of having the virus may choose to wait or skip detection all together in an effort to potentially avoid the shame associated with “having the Rona.”

Last, like any disease or virus, detection is key to limiting the spread and potentially averting disastrous consequences associated with not receiving proper treatment. Instead of celebrating a negative COVID-19 result, I believe we should be applauding the process and effort put into testing, not the negative result. If we only celebrate negative results then we are complicit in perpetuating a static system of COVID-shame that leaves some of the ~200,000 people per day diagnosed with COVID (according to New York Times data as of December 25, 2021) across the US feeling even crummier after contracting a virus that knows no race, gender, or religion.

Side note: It’s imperative that we urge our unvaccinated or partially vaccinated friends and family to get fully vaccinated/boosted. However, regardless of vaccination status, there should not exist an iota of shame associated with a positive COVID-19 test result based on vaccination status. If our unvaccinated friends and family contract COVID-19 and this static system of shame reaches them, then the entrenchment of beliefs associated with the virus or vaccine is allowed to fester and divide this nation further.

You might be thinking, “Ok, got it. I won’t post about my COVID-19 test results, but shouldn’t I still encourage people to get tested?” The answer to this question is a resounding YES.

Revealing our test results is not the only way to potentially encourage our peers to get tested. Instead, there’s a myriad of other ways to demonstrate support of frequent testing for the virus without waiving a safe zone flag. For example, you might post about a pleasant experience getting tested at a local clinic. Or you might suggest another clinic in the vicinity of you and your friends that has lower wait times or rapid PCR testing capability. And, of course, you could not post a single thing and silently do your part in getting tested (if symptoms arise, close contact is had with a known detected case, etc.).

The scientific community has afforded us some spectacularly powerful weapons in the fight against this virus, we mustn’t turn them into mass weapons of shame.

This country is collectively fatigued and feeling crummy. There are similar nations across the globe that are in the same situation. What we can’t afford to do right now is knowingly or unknowingly foster a static system of COVID shame by touting a negative result as the only “good” result. Life in 2021 is hard enough, the third wave brought on with the omicron variant has ruined many holiday plans and spiked case counts across the nation. We’re not out of this pandemic yet, but we can be closer to the end by promoting frequent testing and exalting those who inform us of possible exposure or known detection.

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Brian Larson

Brian Larson

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All Things Future of Work. Graduate of the Fletcher School at Tufts University