About a month ago, I was having a quiet night in when I got a text that’s all-too-familiar these days: A friend I had been with two days earlier tested positive for COVID. Neither she nor I had any symptoms, but I immediately got to work trying to schedule an appointment for a test (a nearly impossible task, I’ll add). As I did so, I was overcome with anxiety. Was I anxious that I would start feeling ill? No. I was anxious that if I did test positive, it would feel shameful. How will I tell the people I’ve seen since I was exposed? I should’ve known better than to go to that birthday brunch. The anxiety persisted for the next couple of days until both a rapid and PCR test came back negative. But the whole experience got me thinking: Why is it that, for many of us, testing positive at this point in the pandemic still feels like a moral failure?
After all, at the start of the pandemic, the messaging was clear: Stay home, do your part and you’ll save lives. The inverse of that, of course, is that if you go out, you’ll put lives in danger. (The logic was flawed, as many people literally had no choice but to go out and do their jobs, but that’s another story.)
I know this internal struggle first-hand, as I tested positive for COVID back in April 2020 (I guess you could say I was an early adopter). But in hindsight, I almost feel lucky that I got it so early on because at the time, there wasn’t this sense of “this is my fault,” “I haven’t done a good enough job” or even “I deserve this.” Pretty much everything was closed—save for the grocery store and pharmacy—and I wasn’t seeing anyone except for the three people I was quarantining with, making it easy to chalk it up to catching a highly contagious virus during a pandemic.
The component of shame seemed to arise as the world began to creep open (prematurely, many now agree) and lots of folks—myself included—began to judge others for their choices. Maybe we turned our noses up at the “wusses” eating indoors while we shivered over a plate of already-cold Bolognese beneath a barely working heater. Maybe we took to our group chats to lambast a mutual acquaintance for posting photos of her trip to Florida. Maybe we even felt smugly superior when we double-masked before venturing into CVS.