A Pandemic Shamer’s Advice for Not Doing That

Photo: Cavan Images / Getty

In my large extended family, Thanksgiving has always been the gentler of the holiday season’s festivities: oriented, in true Midwestern American fashion, around food, football, and lounging around with the clan. In a year where it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to celebrate any of the year-end holidays with family, Thanksgiving is the one I’ll miss most. Which is partly why, amid mounting reports of crowded airports and nearly full flights in this time of peak pestilence, I’m struggling to tap a well of compassion that is… well, not exactly free-flowing.

By most people’s standards, whether I like it or not, I probably fall into the camp of “pandemic shamer.” I’m open about my plans to stay put with my partner instead of flying home for the holiday, and not shy to admit that I’m terrified about a post-Thanksgiving Covid surge. While I’m not sliding into anyone’s DMs to critique choices I don’t agree with, the sentiment is implicit; by merely stating my position, I am broadcasting my belief in a ‘right’ choice that’s opposed to a ‘wrong’ one. Me = ethical. You = reckless dingdong.

But my rational mind understands what my petty heart does not: Implicit or otherwise, pandemic shaming isn’t likely to change anybody’s behavior.

And yet. As our holidays get reduced to compound risk assessments with ever-mounting stakes, those pointer fingers seem to have minds of their own. We’re in a no-win situation — and, to re-up an old pandemic chestnut, we’re in it together.

Take, for instance, the outcry over a recent New York Times opinion column. In it, the writer Farhad Manjoo detailed the sobering public health implications of traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving — before concluding that he plans to do so, anyway. People were outraged: in one camp, at the author for rationalizing a decision that he appeared to have been advising against, in the paper of record. And in another, outrage at the outrage.

As I scrolled through a few of the hundreds of responses in the article’s comment section, one immediately stood out. “All the shaming going on is sad,” it reads. “Each family/person has to do what they think is right for them — and as long as people are following reasonable precautions we need to lay off dictating and shaming their decisions.”

I cannot say that I share the commenter’s view that ‘reasonable precautions’ should be determined by whatever people ‘think is right for them.’ Reason and opinion are not viable safeguards against a highly transmissible and potentially lethal disease; Covid-19 does not care whether you thought long and hard about your choices. But despite our divergent takes, the commenter raises a critical point that’s all too easy to forget. In this situation, reason and opinion are what we’ve got to work with.

Absent a clear, firm directive from public officials to stay home no matter what, each person’s holiday plans inevitably become a loaded personal choice with—we are constantly reminded—potentially catastrophic repercussions. A clear, firm directive doesn’t prevent people from doing whatever they want. But it at least reduces the burden on individuals to solve a tough equation, like the precise degree of risk involved in driving halfway across the country to see Mom and Dad after eight months of firmly adhering to social distancing measures. Decision fatigue is real.

Alas, the closest we’ve gotten to a clear, firm directive is a short-notice CDC recommendation affixed with the tepid warning that ‘travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading Covid-19.’ (Echoing the position of many — but not all — infectious disease specialists, the Atlantic columnist and medical doctor James Hamblin opined that the advisory should have read: “Do not travel. Do not gather.It could have probably been released more than a week ahead of the holiday, too. But what do I know.)

The vast majority of us are not epidemiologists equipped with specialized understandings of the novel coronavirus. We’re people piecing together disparate scraps of information while we go about fulfilling the myriad demands of daily life. It is unfair to be tasked with decisions we’re told may have sweeping life-or-death implications. And yet, here we are. It’s a tough spot to be in, but most of us are trying to do the right thing, anyway.

So, here’s a modest proposal. This holiday weekend, let’s assume that everyone is acting in good faith to make responsible decisions with the information they have. That includes both the pandemic shamers and the pandemic shamer-shamers. Let’s filter our reflexive judgments through an empathy screen. We are all very much in the same boat.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge