Why ‘Pandemic Shaming’ Is Bad for Public Health

Empathy may go further than annoyance when encouraging people to change their risky behavior

At an anti-mask rally, a protester holds a placard saying No Mandated Masks or Shutdown Freedom First
Empathy goes further than shame when it comes to convincing people to change their behavior, according to public health experts. Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations to limit the spread of COVID-19 include frequent hand washing, avoiding close contact with people from outside your household and wearing a face covering.For people who are following the CDC’s recommendations, it can be aggravating to see others who are not. But expressing that frustration through “pandemic shaming” probably won’t have the intended effect, epidemiologist Julia Marcus tells Maddie Sofia at NPR.

Pandemic shaming comes in many forms, whether it’s two women shouting at people to keep six feet away in Central Park, as emergency room doctor Hashem Zikry described to the New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen in April, or the members of a parents’ Facebook group piling on when one member asked for advice about when their kids could visit a grandparent, as Laura Leigh Abby writes for the Washington Post.

“We are frustrated, we are sitting at home, and we are angry but without any good place to direct our anger,” Northwestern University sociologist Gary Alan Fine told Hannah Smothers at Vice in May. “We can’t direct our anger at the virus, so we direct it at our neighbors, at the government, at those few people who are outside.”

Some cajoling might be useful if directed at people in the same group, like friends and colleagues, sociologist Erich Goode tells Vice, because these people value each other’s opinions. But that energy won’t be productive if it’s spent yelling at a stranger.

“I want to make a distinction here between social norms and shaming. I think social norms are very powerful, and that can be one of the best ways, I think, to change health behavior,” Marcus tells NPR. “But there's a difference between making people feel bad about their risky behavior and making people feel good about engaging in protective behaviors as a way of becoming part of what the new social norm is.”

Marcus highlights California’s “Wear a Mask” public awareness campaign as an example of effective public health messaging. The “Wear a Mask” campaign recognizes the inconveniences masks cause while also advocating for their use. The informational materials will also be translated into seven languages.

It’s a stark contrast to messaging that argues that wearing a mask is easy and everyone should just do it—or others who argue that people should still be staying home all the time.

“Asking people to abstain from all social contact indefinitely or until we've scaled up an effective vaccine is just not going to be a sustainable public health strategy,” Marcus tells NPR.

And as Rebecca Jennings writes for Vox, the people who are walking through Central Park scolding others are not the most at risk of catching COVID-19. The pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income, essential workers, especially in Black and Latino communities.

When pandemic shaming reaches the level of public health policy, it may also have dangerous effects on people who take risks. As Marcus and Washington University in St. Louis psychiatrist Jessica Gold write for the Atlantic, colleges are reopening and putting the onus on students to maintain social distancing. After college students partied for the Fourth of July, colleges like Tulane University threatened swift disciplinary action.

“Partygoers have already been hesitant to cooperate with contact tracers off campus—and this reluctance will only be amplified for students who fear being disciplined for breaking the rules,” Marcus and Gold write. Parties like a recent one in Florida have already been linked to COVID-19 clusters, so partygoers working with contact tracers is key to keeping outbreaks in check.

But if you find yourself in a situation where you feel a need to correct someone’s behavior, what’s the best way to do that? Pamela Hieronymi, an expert in ethics and moral responsibility at UCLA, suggests taking a note from Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners.

“One of her basic maxims is to presume the best of the other person,” Hieronymi says to Vox. “Presume they don’t have the right information, presume that they didn’t mean any harm, and then interact on that basis — even if you don’t necessarily have great evidence to the effect that they don’t have the right information.”

“Following that advice, it would be, ‘Hey, did you know that masks can protect people and not wearing them will put me and others at risk?’ and personalizing it that way.”

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