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It is tempting to “Covid-shame” — to gossip about people who have been travelling every weekend, going to huge parties, or flouting CDC and local guidelines. We swiftly condemn those who throw caution to the wind. However, Covid-shaming is misdirected anger that should instead be pointed towards government officials who have succeeded in placing the burden of responsibility upon residents instead of stepping up and instituting restrictions.
I, too, find myself falling into the trap of Covid-shaming, frowning when I see people behaving irresponsibly and patting myself on the back for being at least more careful than some other people. However, I am sure that my own behavior at times seems irresponsible to others; I have certainly not been perfect this past year, and amongst my friends, I fall in the middle of the spectrum for adherence to social distancing guidelines. While I’ve avoided larger gatherings, I find myself well within six feet of complete strangers every time I go to CVS or Target. I am not the most or least cautious, leaving me in the position to judge and also be judged. I suspect that many others find themselves somewhere in this middle ground as well.
As I condemn Covid-shaming, I should clarify that I don’t think that anyone should necessarily get a “pass” for reckless behavior; safety guidelines are important and one of the ways we can limit the spread of a dangerous virus. However, it is troubling that so much of America’s response to Covid-19 has been rooted in personal responsibility and individual action, relying on each of us to be on our best behavior.
For example, the City of Cambridge has a list of guidelines surrounding take-out restaurants and food markets, one of which instructs employees to “be considerate by speaking softly with head turned (less projection of droplets) and breath [sic] through nose, not mouth.” While small behavioral modifications might stop the spread, this advice is laughable in comparison with the City Council’s recent vote against adding capacity restrictions to indoor dining. Instead of taking more direct action to stop Covid-19, government officials seem content to try to have their cake and eat it too. They place the onus on their constituents to be altruistic and responsible and hope cases stay low.
However, there are consequences for seemingly contradictory advisories. Illogical government guidelines undermine the credibility of preventative measures as a whole and make it dangerous to rely upon personal responsibility . In December, Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. ’79 temporarily instituted a stay-at-home order for Massachusetts, encouraging residents to stay at home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., although many have since questioned whether these curfews are effective.
After over a year of living in various stages of lockdown and reopening, it has become clear that the pandemic has led us to rely heavily upon performative gestures which do little in the way of prevention. Extreme displays of hygiene and caution that some have dubbed “Hygiene Theater,” like constantly scrubbing down tables or scanning temperatures, do not do much to prevent the spread of the virus and instead provide a false sense of security. Out of fear of public shaming, many people have taken pains to hide their less careful activities from their social media feeds, but the effects of their actions still exist.
Clearly, we need to be more concerned with substance than appearance, but a culture of shaming points us in the wrong direction. It seems that many Covid-shamers enjoy affirming their own goodness and decency by distancing themselves from rule-breakers, but this performance has no real benefits for anybody else. If the last 12 months have taught us anything, Covid-shaming fails to actually stop people from acting irresponsibly. Shaming others teaches them to avoid being truthful when they do make mistakes. Instead of avoiding social gatherings, many people have simply stopped posting about them. After over a year of Covid-shaming, it’s clear that it’s not working.
Drawing moral assumptions about people based on their adherence to these rules ultimately only plays into the narrative of the importance of individual responsibility during a time when the government should be taking on a bigger role. It also has the danger of distracting us from the more important problems at hand.
Instead of spending so much time and attention (ineffectively) attempting to embarrass rule-breakers into good behavior, we should ask for more from our government officials in regards to vaccine distribution, Covid guidelines, and financial support. We must stop taking cheap shots at anti-maskers and turn to those who are responsible for the current situation and are actually in a position to affect change. Moving towards real progress means moving past Covid shaming for our own benefit.
Alexandra D. Min ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House.
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