Chairman's Desk

Accountability is crucial, but public shamings only make things worse

As the pandemic explodes into the new year, the roller-coaster of emotions we all are experiencing continues.

We have been afraid as we confronted an unknown virus, and we continue to be afraid. We have felt guilty as we wondered what more we could do to help friends, colleagues or neighbours get through these difficult times, and we continue to feel guilty. We have clung to hope that a vaccine will be our answer, and we cling to that hope still.

But these past weeks have been dominated by a singular and all-too-familiar emotional dynamic: Shame.

Long before we began our ongoing witch-hunt against any politician or public figure who has stepped foot outside the country during the pandemic, there were previous instances of public shaming over the course of COVID-19.

Recall the Toronto Sun cover (T.O.’s COVIDIOTS) shaming the summertime gathering of youths in Trinity Bellwoods. Or the case of a doctor in Nova Scotia who travelled over the border to Quebec to retrieve his daughter, and faced horrifically racist recriminations when he returned and inadvertently infected a patient.

Never mind the fact that the day in the park caused no discernable spike in cases, or the fact that the doctor was told by authorities to return to work in the first place — the public shaming came just the same.

The longer that all this wears on, the more tempting it becomes to resort to this crude form of social pressure. We are in a strict lockdown but the number of cases continues to rise. Therefore, many have concluded, people must be breaking the rules — and rulebreakers deserve to be named and shamed.

What’s more, we have new tools for that shaming. Where once we shamed people in the public square, in newspapers or on television, we now take to social media, where the cycle of recriminations has been turbocharged.

So we must ask ourselves: in a pandemic, is shame a useful form of public pressure? Some observers say yes — merely the possibility of a public shaming is enough to dissuade undesirable behaviour.

But if we are truly to allow ourselves to be guided by the science, and if the academic research is to be believed, the answer is a sturdy no. In study after study of pandemics or epidemics past — from obesity to fetal alcohol syndrome — researchers have found shaming tactics or techniques result in health outcomes that are WORSE.

As a gay man who survived the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s, I am well-versed in these arguments and rationales. How long did it take us to learn that to stigmatize those with HIV only dissuades potential cases from getting tested and, if positive, from making responsible choices about their status? Shame serves to drive the virus further underground, and that makes it harder to monitor and treat.

But shaming carriers of contagious disease has a long history (going all the way back to Typhoid Mary), and the impulses behind it are not so easy to wrestle down with logic. It’s simple enough now to explain why shaming HIV-positive people is counterproductive, but with COVID-19, the epidemiology of the virus has been in a constant state of flux. The rules and recommendations protecting us against it are vague and necessarily iterative.

The bottom line is that it is easier to shame individuals for perceived lapses or shortcomings than it is to really grapple with this uncertainty, or to rise above it. We resort to shame because it is easier to point the finger than to offer a solution or extend a hand.

Ten months of trying to harass individual people into compliance has clearly failed. By now, we must understand that infection is not a moral failure, and that all individuals will make their own risk calculations under the guidelines and regulations set forward by governments.

Disagreements abound, but there is a better way. Expert epidemiologists say that condemnations should be reserved for broad categories of behaviour — mass indoor gatherings, say, or mid-winter tropical vacations, and not individuals who may transgress. In short, as we look ahead to the end of this wretched pandemic, we need to learn to hate the sin, and not the sinner.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 10, 2021.

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