Why Some People Are Shaming Others for Getting COVID-19

Man getting a COVID test

 iStockphoto

Moral policing, criticizing, and shaming about COVID-19 is rampant right now, especially on social media. In fact, you probably don't have to scroll far through your feed before seeing rants about people holding large gatherings or going maskless in certain stores.

Even healthcare workers are shamed for everything from entering a grocery store while still wearing their scrubs to taking off work when they're sick. One report indicates that healthcare workers suffer symptom-shaming for calling out when they have symptoms of a respiratory infection because the healthcare system lacks the staffing to fill in the gaps when people get sick.

But perhaps the most worrisome form of shaming is the potential criticism people receive when they get a COVID-19 diagnosis. Others may assume that the person with the coronavirus diagnosis must have broken "the rules" somehow—that they are clearly careless about social distancing or have little concern for the health and safety of others.

Even worse, people attach a stigma to them, viewing them as dirty or unsafe even long after they have recovered. For this reason, some people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are starting to conceal their diagnosis or delay testing, which is an unfortunate and dangerous trend with a number of negative consequences. According to health experts, testing is essential for things to return to normal.

So where do we go from here? Learn more about what the root causes of shaming others are, so we can all do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19 while supporting and respecting others.

Why People Shame Others

Living through a pandemic has heightened the stakes for everyone. People are feeling confused, anxious, and scared so every small decision other people make is often scrutinized and criticized.

But what causes people to take it one step further and shame others, especially when they are at their most vulnerable? Here's a closer look at some of the motivating factors behind why people might shame others for being diagnosed with COVID-19.

It's a Natural Instinct

Believe it or not, scolding other people or shaming them for their COVID-19 diagnosis is a natural response. Not surprisingly, people are worried about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. When someone gets diagnosed with the coronavirus, they may shame them out of a deeply-rooted fear of what that new diagnosis might mean.

In fact, it is completely natural—and somewhat cathartic—to write an angry post online when people feel so out-of-control and helpless. It also feels somewhat safe too, because they are not risking an in-person confrontation.

The problem is that shaming doesn't work. In fact, the more energy people put into shaming others in order to find some sense of control over an out-of-control situation, the more harmful it can be. Shaming others likely creates more anxiety rather than relieving it as they had hoped.

They Are Motivated by FOMO

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a huge reason why people might shame other people, especially if they are diligently staying at home, wearing a mask, and abiding by safety guidelines. Meanwhile, they see others on social media going on vacations, attending large gatherings, and breaking other safety protocols and it causes their frustration levels to increase.

They get this picture in their head that everyone is having a party except for them; and it is very hard not to lash out, especially if one of those people is diagnosed with COVID-19.

But remember, shaming another person is not an appropriate response for such a potentially-dangerous disease regardless of how much FOMO a person is experiencing.

In fact, fear of shaming has led many people to hide their social activities and to refrain from posting them online. For instance, a poll conducted by Evite in partnership with OnePoll found that 54% of people are keeping their socializing secret.

They Feel Like an Expert

Many people feel it is their responsibility to correct and educate others, especially with regard to the coronavirus. After all, they are convinced that the latest information they found on social media is the ultimate authority and they need to correct anyone who disagrees with their beliefs.

But according to pandemic experts like U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, there is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media. In fact, this misinformation is crowding out accurate public health guidance and causing people to question everything.

According to research conducted by Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Americans indicate they have seen news or information that appears completely made up.

In the meantime, instead of engaging with others and determining what a friend or family member might need while they recover from the illness, people are resorting to shaming behavior or resharing screenshots as a way to achieve their desired results.

This behavior rarely, if ever, is effective. Instead, a more effective response is to engage in a respectful dialogue in order to promote change.

Some people may also be inclined to shame others for wearing a mask or even getting a COVID test in the first place—especially if they feel like numbers are over-inflated or that more positive results mean more restrictions on their freedoms.

They Lack Sensitivity

People who shame others often fail to recognize how their behavior impacts them. And unfortunately, this inability to connect with others on a personal level is largely influenced by social media. For instance, it is surprisingly easy for people to say the first thing that comes to their mind when they're sitting behind a computer screen.

But the problem with this armchair-style reaction is that they cannot see the facial expressions of other people, which may keep them from continuing with their rant.

Social media is rarely the ideal vehicle for interacting with people on deep and highly personal topics. Often, the lack of sensitivity that people demonstrate online ends up wounding people in the process—even close family members or friends.

People hear terms in the media or from political leaders—such as "superspreader," "COVID suspect," and "the Chinese virus," and then repeat them in their social media posts. These types of labels end up shaming people and creating a stigma long before someone is even diagnosed with COVID-19. Then, when they do contract the virus, they are afraid people will say those same things about them.

Consequences of Shaming

When people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, it's natural to be both fearful and anxious about what diagnosis will mean for them. They may worry if they will experience some of the unfortunate side effects and complications that the illness can cause. But they also may wrestle with other fears, too, like the fear of being shamed, shunned, or ostracized because they contracted the virus.

As a result, doctors are finding that many people are keeping their diagnosis a secret out of fear of how others will respond or treat them. Even if they did everything right, there will be those who blame them for getting sick and assume that they did something wrong. And this stigma and discrimination—especially while they are ill—can be devastating.

In fact, shaming people because of a coronavirus diagnosis can hinder efforts to prevent further spread as well as impact treatment of infected people.

If people are too afraid of what a COVID-19 diagnosis might mean for them and their job, they may delay getting tested. They also may not receive the treatment they need in a timely manner, and they may not let others know that they could have been infected as well.

Likewise, people diagnosed with COVID-19 may struggle with guilt, especially if there is a chance that they infected other people too. They may also experience self-shame over their diagnosis even if no one has directly shamed them.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone has a responsibility to do their part when it comes to reducing the spread of the coronavirus, which includes wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. But people also have a responsibility to treat their fellow humans with respect.

Shaming people for a COVID-19 diagnosis doesn't help anyone. In fact, it drives people to stay silent about their diagnosis and when that happens, the coronavirus spreads, treatment is delayed, and prevention efforts are hindered.

Instead of blaming or criticizing someone, ask how you can help. Offer to run errands or drop off supplies and food. The better we treat our fellow humans, the more likely we are to come through this pandemic stronger and better than ever.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Daniel MG. Symptom shame in the COVID-19 era: battling our instinctsAm J Gastroenterol. 2020;115(8):1156-1157. doi:10.14309/ajg.0000000000000724

  2. Centers for Disease Control. Reducing stigma. Updated June 11, 2020.

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Why testing is the key to getting back to normal.

  4. Sznycer D, Tooby J, Cosmides L, Porat R, Shalvi S, Halperin E. Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across culturesProc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(10):2625-2630. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514699113

  5. SWNS Digital. Americans want these safety precautions before attending events in 2020. July 23, 2020.

  6. United Nations. Press freedom critical to countering COVID-19 ‘pandemic of misinformation’: UN chief.

  7. Pew Research Center. About seven-in-ten U.S. adults say they teed to take breaks from COVID-19 news.

Additional Reading