COVID and Reflections on Jessica Flanigan

One  of the points Flanigan makes in her piece “Seat Belt Mandates and Paternalism” is that we’re conditioned to use seat belts from a very early age. It’s a thing we internalize and build into our understanding of the world. People feel bad when they don’t wear a seat belt.(1) They’re unsettled. They feel unsafe. They feel like they’re doing something wrong.

Masks have started to fit into this model as well. Not wearing a mask feels wrong. An acquaintance shared a story of crying after realizing they had left the house without a mask. For some people, mask wearing has been deeply internalized.

We have regular COVID tests at NYU. Every other week I spit into a tube and then am told whether I am safe or sick. This allows me to hang out with my friends more confident than I would feel otherwise. This allows me to be closer to people than I would be otherwise. It also means that if I got sick, I would know, even if I was asymptomatic. If this happened, I would need to tell my friends. I would trace the places I’ve been, the people I’ve seen, and admit to them that I got sick. I would feel shame because something I did put me in that position.

There were (are?) calls to market mask wearing and COVID protection with the same techniques we use around sex: wear protection, get tested, think before you act, ask consent before touching, be honest and open with the people around you about your risk factors.

This is effective, at least among a swath of the population, but COVID has effectively become another STD. It’s a socially transmitted disease that we have tabooified into creating shame in people who have it.

The problem with this is, of course, that COVID isn’t treatable in the same way syphilis and chlamydia are. Still, I would ask whether people don’t report, or get tested, or even wear masks, because of shame? In some communities, wearing a mask is a sign that you’re sick. It’s stigmatizing.(2)

I think talking about COVID the way we talk about sex is not the right approach because, in my experience, the ways I learned about sex were everything from factually wrong to deeply harmful. If what we’re doing doesn’t work, what does?

(1) Yes, I know not everyone.

(2) Many men who don’t wear masks cite it as feeling emasculating, rather than stigmatizing.