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A year into the pandemic, shame still doesn’t work

GaysOverCovid is a case study in why public shaming and scolding does more harm than good.

A crowd of people at the beach.
Maskless beachgoers at Ipanema Beach, earlier this month.
Fernando Souza/picture alliance via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On December 31, a group of gay men intended to celebrate the passing of another year with a cruise in the open ocean, just off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. That day, the ocean had other plans.

From dry land, I saw the videos first on Twitter — men in life jackets and speedos pulling other men in life jackets and speedos onto rescue boats. Local news site Out and About PV confirmed that a boat had sunk, reporting that all partiers were rescued without harm. And then the now-infamous Instagram account “GaysOverCovid” made it go viral.

Over the last few months and peaking in the days surrounding New Year’s Eve, @GaysOverCovid has exponentially multiplied its follower count on Instagram to more than 133,000 since being created in July. The secret to the growing follower count — perhaps not the name, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue — is shame.

GaysOverCovid (GOC) and the many copycat accounts like it repost social media content from people violating coronavirus guidelines by throwing parties, traveling, and attending huge gatherings. In GOC’s case, the violators happen to be predominantly white gay men, including influencers with thousands of their own followers, who are going to massive, maskless parties. (These events, known generally and even pre-Covid as circuit parties, are worth their own separate article.) Don’t be like the “gays over covid,” the account warns, or you might end up being made an example of.

The outing of those who blatantly flout health guidelines and put others in danger can feel satisfying. When massive parties are shut down — or when, by a twist of fate, the ocean decides to swallow a boatful of unmasked partiers — it may look a lot like justice. (Fortunately, in Puerto Vallarta, no one on the capsized boat was reported injured.)

But the rise of GOC’s popularity has driven another conversation about whether schadenfreude does any good at all. Big public health initiatives to curb drunk driving and secondhand smoke rely on shame, but those concerns aren’t quite the same as the coronavirus pandemic. And if you ask public health experts, as satisfying as chastening others can feel, they’ve learned it can actually do harm when it comes to an urgent public health crisis.

Why shaming someone feels like the right thing to do

The primary appeal of GOC’s account, to me, was the lack of self-awareness of some of its subjects. Wanting to go to a party after spending the last 10 months inside is normal. Wanting to hang out with strangers is normal. Wanting to travel to a different country again is normal. What’s baffling isn’t even that people would break all these rules (please don’t), but rather that they would post about it on social media. All the more confusing if they were, as some of the GOC subjects are, health professionals or had major social media followings and paid sponsorships.

The desire to post your foolishness on social media is sadly common. But in talking to public health experts and public health behavioral specialists, the desire to shame people is pretty common too. Shame is one of the tools we use to establish boundaries, and those boundaries establish the structure and behavior that we, as a civil society, approve of and disapprove of.

David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU who studies addiction, said that we first see boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in childhood. As kids, we learned things like washing our hands, or sharing toys, or doing our homework before we watch television. When we broke rules, we were shamed.

“Punishment and shaming, I think, [are some of] the strongest and most powerful ways to try to get people back in line when they deviate,” Abrams told me.

Shaming and embarrassing people on social media is essentially replicating what we’ve been taught to do when we see bad behavior; it’s an attempt to get said behavior back in line. Ridicule is, in its way, setting a boundary; in this case the boundary it’s attempting to impart is “you shouldn’t travel internationally to party and frolic with a bunch of people in a place where hospitals are at their capacity and then return home and potentially put anyone you come into contact with at risk.”

But it’s the same motivation and message as shaming people going to concerts or shaming people who are holding weddings or shaming people who aren’t wearing masks.

Abrams pointed out that sometimes this shaming works. In April of last year, Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit to the Mayo Clinic without a mask. That visit was photographed and picked up by news outlets which pointed out that he wasn’t just putting himself at risk but was also putting at-risk people at risk. After that instance, Abrams said that Pence began adhering to masks more often, especially in public.

After GOC called out various partiers, some apologized publicly. Barry’s Bootcamp, where at least one partier worked, sent a company memo about quarantining and social distancing. Not unlike Abrams’s Pence example, some people who were shamed showed remorse and promised better behavior in the future.

But the problem is that while shame can be effective for some people, it has its drawbacks. And in a public health sphere, experts say that the downsides have a history of outweighing benefits.

“Shame does have some negative consequences, not the least of which is it makes you feel embarrassed and guilty,” Abrams said. “And in effect, it makes you want to run away and feel terrible about yourself.”

Feeling terrible about yourself doesn’t always result in good behavior.

Shame doesn’t work

The drawback with shaming individuals is that it can cause negative reactions and more negative behavior. It happened with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that still afflicts the US today. It happens with addiction and mental illness. An adverse, very serious reaction to shame is that it doesn’t encourage people to get the help they need.

“Shaming people in any situation really creates a barrier for individuals,” said Jen Balkus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington. Balkus says that this barrier can make it harder to “acknowledge situations where they may have encountered risk.”

In assessing how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was handled, public health officials learned that shame didn’t eliminate risky behavior. Instead, shame drove people to hide or not disclose that behavior. Those reactions are what Balkus and public health officials fear, and what they say is happening in the current pandemic.

“Individuals who might be shamed by their peers or others might not disclose that they were around people where there could be the opportunity for exposure,” Balkus said of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, they may not feel comfortable getting tested, and they may not quarantine or consider other precautions.

HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 are two very different diseases, and the comparison between the two isn’t linear. But Balkus said that the lessons that epidemiologists learned from addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic could inform the conversations we have about the coronavirus. That means eliminating stigma, encouraging people to get tested, promoting better behavior and risk reduction, and teaching people what to do if exposed.

“We learned from the HIV epidemic how to talk with people and to work with them,” Balkus said, adding that it’s important to have “an open dialogue to understand what behaviors folks are engaging in and what choices they could make to reduce risk.” Good communication doesn’t mitigate risk entirely, but “it’s about helping empower people to make the best decisions in the moment,” she told me.

The goal is to shift from shaming people into better behavior to modeling and encouraging better behavior — the other, more powerful, side of the boundary.

Balkus and Abrams both said that consistent positive encouragement is a much more effective tool in public health. The absence of it can also help explain why people are, say, going to giant parties despite the amount of risk involved.

Because of the variation in rules — like how indoor dining restrictions and capacity limits vary from state to state — and inconsistent behavior from public leaders, there’s confusion, doubt, and even defiance against the guidelines among the general population. That there are so many people going to these parties or not wearing masks or not paying attention to social distancing measures seems to indicate a failure of getting a message across rather than just a staggering number of individual failures.

That’s a failure on the structural and policy level, Balkus said. “From the very beginning of the pandemic, we have had a fragmented and state-by-state response. It’s really made it incredibly difficult to both try to get a handle on transmission and keep it as low as possible, and keep our communities as safe as we can in this moment,” she said.

What makes this all frustrating is that the shaming seems to be coming from a place of concern and safety. It’s not bad to worry about the danger these parties present. Just because public health officials acknowledge that shame is bad doesn’t mean they think that these parties don’t present a danger.

There are times shame has worked: In the US, we’ve effectively shamed drunk driving and secondhand smoke, achieving a consensus. Giant gatherings during the pandemic — circuit parties, weddings, underground celebrations, etc. — have a lot in common with these public safety concerns. The attendees of these events could potentially infect people who might not even have attended, much the way a drunk driver could cause a fatal accident with another driver or a smoker could affect nonsmokers around them.

Balkus and Abrams said that there are similarities, but the main difference is that the US had years and years to curb drunk driving and smoking. We don’t have that kind of time with the pandemic. We’ve all been asked to change our behavior in such a short amount of time, and the way out isn’t to shun each other. Rather, it’s to care for one another and really focus on amplifying and pushing public health policy and guidelines in clear and helpful ways.

And experts understand that figuring out that balance between shame, concern, stigma, empathy, and policy isn’t easy.

“We are all facing this pandemic together. Nobody is excluded from the hardships. And so I think for all of us, it’s just, it’s really just challenging both to find that empathy for others, and also take care of ourselves. But I think that’s super important to do,” she said.

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