The YU Observer has verified that the anonymous writer of this article is a current YU undergraduate student.
In August, I thought I had coronavirus. As any responsible person would, I got tested and, while I waited for my results, I alerted my peers — people I had seen at Shabbat (Sabbath) services, people I had gone on socially distanced walks with, and anyone else I could remember being in contact with.
The responses were mixed. While some of the responses were positive, such as “Hope the test is negative! Feel better!”, others were not nearly so supportive. I received reprimanding messages of “Maybe you should be careful” and “Serves you right” almost as often as messages of compassion.
In the past, “Serves you right” would not have been a typical response to being sick. But as countless headlines remind us each day, we are living in “unprecedented times.” When a person says they have coronavirus, a stigmatized image manifests. Rather than the person being a victim who caught a virus, the person becomes a criminal in the eyes of others: people assume they refuse to wear a mask, social distance, wash their hands, or follow CDC guidelines. Thus, coronavirus is viewed as the punishment God serves to those who “deserve” it for such transgressions.
It seems we have forgotten that coronavirus is, in fact, a highly contagious virus, and not a divine punishment like tzaraas (biblical leprosy). Coronavirus does not spread as a spiritual disease or a judgment, but like an illness — one that does not care how cautious you are. Stigmatizing and judging victims of coronavirus is not necessary or productive.
If we have learned anything from the past several months, it is that anyone can get coronavirus, even if we social distance and we wear masks and we take all the precautions we can. As more and more people have tested positive, from praised celebrities to personal loved ones, the contagious quality of the virus has become a more tangible reality. When the world is suffering in a global pandemic, being ravaged by a highly contagious virus that, thus far, has no cure, it should not be a surprise that everyone, even the most cautious people, can get coronavirus.
In fact, stigmatizing coronavirus actually risks increasing the spread. According to medical anthropologist Mitchell Weiss of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, the immense stigmas placed on coronavirus victims have led not to people necessarily being more careful, but more to avoid getting tested. If a person gets tested, a positive diagnosis can have social repercussions; if a person does not get tested, they can pretend they do not have the potential to spread the virus, and they do not have to face the social repercussions of coronavirus stigma. In terms of public health, it is inarguably more effective to get tests whenever necessary than it is to pretend the problem is not happening. When a simple test or precaution comes with social stigma, no one wants to get tested and take that risk.
It is important to remember that coronavirus is not a reflection of one’s character or hygiene. It is a virus that has spread all over the world, and sometimes people catch it, no matter how cautious and disinfected they are. Moving forward, we must remember that coronavirus is a physical disease, that it is not necessarily the “fault” of the victim, and that stigma is counteractive to the efforts we are all making to flatten the curve.
Thank goodness, I did not have coronavirus in the end. But would you still respect me if I did?