Opinion | End the stigma against COVID-19 patients

By Ana Altchek, Staff Columnist

I’ll never forget the images I saw during the first few weeks of quarantine in late April — crowded streets filled with unmasked people waving American flags and holding anti-tyranny posters, protesting against stay-at-home orders while thousands were dying of COVID-19.

From then on, the narrative became cut and dry — if someone contracted COVID-19, they were probably partaking in irresponsible behavior and ignoring the severity of the virus. Of course, there’s some truth to this. After all, in the middle of the first major outbreak, college students on spring break prioritized partying over their parents’ health.

Now, with the start of a new academic semester, there’s been a surge of cases on college campuses and the same narrative follows. And while some people catch the virus because of recklessness, we can’t assume all COVID-19 patients wound up sick because of irresponsible behavior. In fact, attaching this kind of stigma to COVID-19 patients only worsens the experience for those suffering from the sickness and makes potential patients less likely to get tested and seek out the help they need.

It’s worth noting that stigmas against people with contagious diseases didn’t start with COVID-19 — outbreaks of HIV, ebola, mononucleosis and many STIs are often met with the same tendency for people to blame others and form negative opinions about those who contract infectious diseases. And to some extent, this is an evolutionary response that helps humans protect themselves.

In fact, the Parasite Avoidance theory explains these reactions that cause us to physically distance from others who could infect us. These instinctual behaviors are the reason we feel disgusted or afraid by signs of sickness such as bleeding or vomiting. Humans have a natural tendency to avoid those who carry disease and form aversions of dangerous illnesses.

But even though these reactions constitute a natural biological response and it is necessary to stay weary of those who could be carriers, it’s also important to refrain from assigning prejudices against those who are sick. And when dealing with an infectious and widespread virus, like COVID-19, these general stereotypes just don’t reflect an accurate and succinct understanding of its transmission.

Several universities, such as UNC and NC State, have recognized fraternities as a hotspot for COVID-19 spread. Other universities, including Pitt, have sent aggressive messages to students warning them against partying and invoking strict consequences against those who partake in large gatherings.

While universities are right to prohibit partying, there are many other ways to spread the virus. Even if you follow all guidelines and stick to hanging out only with your pod, it only takes one member in a household to spread it to everyone else in that living space. If one person in a pod has a significant other outside the pod, or even an in-person job, every person in that group is exposed to the risk. On a college campus, this risk is way higher, since people are naturally exposed to more people and partaking in more daily activities than they would be at home. 

Still, this hasn’t prevented people from assuming that those who get infected have acted rashly or bent the rules. In many cases, these assumptions cause patients to be treated with less respect and sympathy. Jess Fisher, a senior psychology and sociology double major, contracted COVID-19 while she was abroad in March, and says her friends were angry with her after she tested positive.

“I felt super guilty and as if they were blaming me for something that was out of my control,” Fisher said.

Fisher tested positive in the early stages of COVID-19, when there was little known about the virus or its spread. Obviously she couldn’t be held any more accountable for its spread than the people who had been in close contact with her.

Chloe Chappell, a senior political science major, caught the virus in March and said she still experiences discomfort when telling others she tested positive.

“People didn’t want to be anywhere near me even after over a month of when I tested negative and was cleared to end quarantining,” Chappell said. “Even now when people hear that I tested positive, over six months ago, I can see that it makes them nervous.”

In addition to inflicting unnecessary guilt upon others and making their experience even more unpleasant, there’s several issues that arise from this. First of all, people are less likely to get tested if they’re worried about the results negatively impacting their relationships. This will not only prevent universities from accurately assessing the severity of cases, but will also stunt research and data about the virus.

Not only will fewer people get tested, but people will be less likely to share their results and inform others of their condition if they anticipate judgment or resentment. At the end of the day, humans are self-serving and many will not undergo humiliation, even if that means putting others at risk.

So while the initial response of placing biases against those with infectious diseases may stem from a life saving response, it only further complicates the current public health crisis in today’s era. Even though it may be difficult to break the habit of stigmatizing individuals who test positive, it’s worth making a conscious effort to do so.

The reality is that COVID-19 has already plagued the world for over eight months, and there’s no specific end date in sight. People have to carry on with their daily activities and interactions with others — and as long as that continues, there will always remain a risk of contraction.

Ana writes primarily about social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].