Landgraff: Catching COVID-19 is not a moral failing

Jack Landgraff, Columnist

Fear dominated the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid a two-week Spring Break extension that rapidly turned into nearly a year’s worth of virtual school, COVID-19 made fear a near-constant part of life. Families often disinfected groceries and takeout boxes out of a true abundance of caution. 

Then, the pandemic evolved. America learned more about how COVID-19 spreads and how dangerous it can be. Highly effective vaccines seemed to solve every problem, doing a spectacular job at preventing severe illness. Before new variants emerged, they also seemed to do a remarkable job preventing infection in the first place.

But at the beginning of 2021, when students across the country initially returned to college campuses, a new tool was weaponized to help prevent the spread of the pandemic: shame. Initially, the effects of this shame culture seemed to potentially be worth it, as it promoted safer behavior. But as all good public shaming campaigns go, eventually it seemed like the shame of catching COVID-19 became internalized. 

It seemed to me that contracting COVID-19 became commonly viewed as a moral failing. It began to feel like, in order to succumb to the virus, one had to be either reckless and ignore all guidelines or be unvaccinated. Either way, as vaccines became more common, the stigma persisted. An infection was something to be kept private. There was an assumption that getting COVID-19 suggested someone had taken downright unacceptable risks that prolonged the pandemic. Avoiding COVID-19 almost became something to feel superior about. It seemed that being a more ethical person, and not dumb luck, was the reason people avoided contracting the virus. 

Ascribing a public health crisis to individual moral failings is wholly unhelpful and potentially dangerous. 

Primarily, given the emergence of the omicron variant and its rapid spread, it places too much blame on individuals for catching the virus. Many more Americans will catch omicron before the pandemic ends. It would be ridiculous to continue to treat the pandemic as though encountering it has become the fault of individuals. Northwestern’s own case numbers have shot through the roof, and it feels as if everyone has multiple friends locked up in 1835 Hinman. The truth is evident: this virus might just be too contagious for even the most careful to avoid. If you catch COVID-19, it is not your fault. 

This directly implicates how people should respond to those that have potentially exposed them: without any anger. Frustration over getting exposed is certainly justified, but it should not be directed towards whoever it may be that exposed you. At this point, we should not be shaming someone who eats out at a local restaurant and contracts the virus. After nearly two years, COVID-19 may become inescapable. 

And for those who contract the virus, lengthy apologies to those you have exposed are not in order. Most of us, especially within the NU community, are trying our best to keep each other safe and still enjoy the college experience as much as possible. If a few bites out at an Evanston restaurant exposes you to the virus, as unfortunate as that is, there’s nothing to feel bad about. 

The culture of shame has larger negative repercussions. It encourages people to not be honest about their COVID-19 exposures or positive tests, which is in no one’s best interest. That makes our entire community less safe. More importantly, and more immediately, it allows professors to get away with policies — such as few hybrid class options and no assessment makeup policy –– that, should NU end Wildcat Wellness as planned, massively disadvantage those who end up in Quarantine and Isolation Housing. Because as the shame culture logic goes, it’s the student’s fault for contracting COVID-19. In the end, that creates big incentives for students to avoid testing positive at all costs because there is ample potential for that to massively hinder their academic success. 

So when that NAVICA app identifies a positive test result, or when that sore throat comes on, “shame” should be the last emotion anyone feels. It’s in everyone’s best interest. 

Jack Landgraff is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.