The Case for Letting Go of Pandemic Shaming (Even Now)

I don’t agree with Farhad Manjoo’s conclusion. I can see how someone would reach it.

Photo by Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Last week, I cried for the first time in… well, I guess about two years, since I saw that wrenching documentary about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. These were big, gummy sobs, the kind where your sinuses plug up and you yawp for air.

I had just gotten off the phone with my mom, whom I haven’t seen in a year, explaining that my wife and I would not be flying from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving as we had planned. When we made the arrangements, Covid numbers were down, and it seemed — with proper distancing, quarantine measures, testing, and high-quality PPE — that we could travel reasonably safely to a gathering that would exclusively involve my mom, her partner, my wife, and me. With cases now surging, especially in Illinois, we decided this was no longer responsible.

And yet, I can find empathy for those who would make the opposite choice. Enter Farhad Manjoo.

In what has already become an infamous column for the New York Times Friday, Manjoo traces through an animated infographic the size of his Covid-19 bubble. He concludes that it’s “enormous.”

“Once I had counted everyone, I realized that visiting my parents for Thanksgiving would be like asking them to sit down to dinner with more than 100 people,” he writes. Then, in a twist that has prompted fierce criticism from members of the Twitter commentariat, he decides to travel for Thanksgiving anyway.

“With a practically nonexistent federal response and extremely inconsistent strategies from local officials, an individual is forced to make a complex moral calculus with every decision.”

Shaming is easy. Research shows it’s also probably not effective. (For more on this and its specific relationship to the public health crisis represented by Covid-19, I recommend this thread by Julia Marcus, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.) And the backlash misses two points. First, Manjoo’s piece, despite his ultimate decision, actually illustrates infection risk better than anything else I’ve seen. (Actually, two people I know fessed up to sharing the story without having read the last part, simply thinking the data visualization was a powerful way to dissuade people from traveling.) Second, the situation Manjoo describes in Northern California does represent a different potential for exposure compared to, say, a family gathering that includes someone who’s been bar-hopping in North Dakota. The risk is far beyond non-zero, but it is also nuanced.

I’d like to be clear about one thing before I continue. The safest decision anyone can make right now, in the words of Zeynep Tufekci, is to “hunker down.” Isolating is what will slow the spread of the coronavirus, period. If you can, you should. This is why my family decided to cancel Thanksgiving plans, and why, ethically, you would do well to cancel yours.

But I think we must also understand that the issue is not exactly two-dimensional. In fact, with a practically nonexistent federal response and extremely inconsistent strategies from local officials, an individual is forced to make a complex moral calculus with every decision.

“ In an absurdly painful year, I’m not sure I’m ready to condemn someone who acknowledges that death is on the horizon and decides to spend some time with his loved ones.”

Here’s one example: Is it wrong to order food in a city where a delivery person might potentially be exposed to a dozen-plus customers every night? In a vacuum, of course it is: You are increasing the number of face-to-face interactions for a service worker who is forced to complete a now-risky job because you want the luxury of a meal that you did not cook yourself. How does the calculus change if you can tell the delivery person to leave the meal outside your door? How does it change if the restaurant, faced with months yet to go without a widespread Covid vaccine or a financial bailout from the government, is facing imminent closure for lack of business? How does it change if the city has maintained relatively low infection rates? How does it change if you are nervous about going to a grocery store, where a great many people gather every day? How does it change if you are physically unable to get to a grocery store?

To which a reasonable individual might respond that the issue of feeding yourself is very different from the issue of seeing family when you do not absolutely have to. But even here there are gradations: If the situation is truly as Manjoo describes, then his travel is about as safe as it could be. His children are educated in a “distance-learning pod” in an area with relatively low Covid rates; through conversations with other parents, he is confident that even his “indirect contacts are taking the virus seriously”; he is quarantining his family before their travel; he is planning to get tested before and after the trip; he is driving, not flying; and his Thanksgiving gathering will be extremely limited.

By this account, the risk of anyone getting sick is perhaps smaller than it might be in a relatively routine interaction elsewhere in this country. Yes, it would be even smaller if he simply sucked it up and did not travel. So many of us are making that painful decision — it’s natural to be upset at someone who understands the risks and chooses not to make the same sacrifice.

Then again, isn’t it that exact burden that should lead us to empathy? In an absurdly painful year, I’m not sure I’m ready to condemn someone who acknowledges that death is on the horizon and decides to spend some time with his loved ones.

A number of commentators seem to agree with this while reserving criticism for the platform that published Manjoo’s take. The Times is huge and influential, and so it should not endorse a perspective that may inspire others to take a dangerous action, the criticism goes. On this count, I have to admit I’m ambivalent as an editor myself. I believe in the power of the printed word and that the editors of the Times op-ed pages would, as a general rule, benefit from a bit more restraint. I also see a column that illustrates better than anything else I’ve encountered how risk can spiral out of control, and communicates in clear language a psychic toll that many of us are grappling with.

As I write this, I’m left wondering when I’ll see my mom again. If I was prone to pessimism, I might instead wonder if I will see my mom again. I carry this fear as someone who lost a father to disease as a teenager. I hope (seemingly against hope) that we can come together and see reason as an American community to fight this pandemic together. And I won’t insist that an individual — even one as frequently misguided as Manjoo — be shamed into shouldering this burden alone.

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A blog from Medium for Covid-19 news, advice, and commentary.

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Damon Beres

Damon Beres

Co-Founder and Former Editor in Chief, OneZero at Medium

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