Getting COVID Isn’t A Shameful Moral Failure

A breakthrough infection can cause surprising feelings of shame and guilt. Here's how to deal if they happen.
Jorg Greuel via Getty Images
A breakthrough infection can cause surprising feelings of shame and guilt. Here’s how to deal if they happen.

Omicron is changing the game a bit. Those who got vaccinated and tried to be responsible during the pandemic are now seeing more breakthrough infections, which reasonably has led to a lot of unsettling feelings ― including some guilt and shame.

But make no mistake: If you contract COVID-19 this winter, it by no means indicates that you made a mistake, behaved selfishly or weren’t “good enough” at preventing its spread.

The coronavirus has mutated to be significantly more infectious than it was in 2020, and even those who have been strictly adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance and recommendations are now testing positive.

Omicron is sweeping through entire cities at record speed, and many of the precautions we previously relied on — like cloth and surgical masks, distancing by six feet, and vaccines — will no longer be able to prevent all transmission. Yes, these tools will still help us reduce and slow the spread and our vaccines continue to provide strong protection against severe outcomes like hospitalization and deaths, but COVID exposure is quickly becoming unavoidable.

“It happens — people get infectious diseases. This particular one is a highly transmissible respiratory virus and so a lot of people are going to get it, especially with omicron,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco, told HuffPost.

Why A Diagnosis Comes With So Much Guilt

Since the start of the pandemic, COVID has been a highly stigmatized disease. For most of the pandemic, we were encouraged to avoid activities and stay at home in order to save lives. Yes, precautions were necessary ― particularly early on ― but the judgmental attitude toward anyone who struggled with it created a morality around the behavior.

This type of all-or-nothing messaging disregards the fundamental needs people have. (Not to mention it also ignores a large group of people who can’t just stay home ― essential workers.)

“Humans are social beings, so there is always that desire” to feel connected to others, said Sheehan Fisher, a psychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. People are craving that connection now more than ever.

We’ve been quick to criticize people for engaging in certain actions such as dining indoors, traveling and going to gatherings. “We added shame and stigma to our messaging from the very beginning,” Gandhi said.

As a result, a COVID diagnosis can now feel like a negative reflection of one’s character or poor decision-making. This, in turn, can create excessive guilt and excessive external judgment by people if and when someone is diagnosed with COVID, Fisher said.

It’s Not Your Fault COVID Is So Contagious

Omicron has showed us that as long as we are out and about and around people, the risk of being exposed or infected will never be zero. A recent study from Hong Kong found that omicron replicates 70 times faster in the upper airways, suggesting the new variant is significantly more contagious than its predecessors.

COVID has become so transmissible that many epidemiologists suspect a simple cloth or surgical mask will be less effective at preventing many omicron cases. The virus is airborne, meaning tiny viral particles can hang and travel through the air — likely for hours. People who are vaccinated are having a hard time reconciling that they may have practiced all of the prevention recommendations but still got infected due to the nature of this virus, said Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Health.

“The reason that this virus is spreading so easily is not because we’re not good enough,” Gandhi added. “It’s because it’s endemic, it’s highly transmissible, it has a long infectious period … that’s why this virus spreads.”

Personal responsibility during the pandemic can only carry an individual person so far.
Willie B. Thomas via Getty Images
Personal responsibility during the pandemic can only carry an individual person so far.

The Consequences Of Shame And Guilt

All this shame, guilt and stigma around COVID comes with a hefty tax. When people are feeling emotionally uncomfortable, they often become a bit avoidant — which can have negative consequences on public health efforts.

“People tend to then be inclined not to get tested or tell people who need to know about exposure because they don’t want to be viewed in a negative light,” Fisher said.

Some may excessively isolate themselves — more than what’s necessary to prevent transmission — due to a fear of being judged.

“That makes people, once again, more afraid to be honest about what they’re going through or even get social support or emotional support,” Fisher said. After a two years of this pandemic, the last thing we need is more isolation.

In general, it can also just add undue anxiety on top of an already stressful time. COVID is difficult enough to handle without having mental health repercussions on top of it.

How To Reframe Shame And Guilt

It’s important to recognize that you aren’t alone — the pandemic has happened to all of us. “Many of us are either afraid of [COVID], at risk of getting it, or may even contract it,” Fisher said.

It can also be helpful to accept what you cannot change. We live in a world where an extremely infectious virus rapidly spreads through communities.

“Anytime you leave your house, essentially you are exposing yourself, and that doesn’t mean we should limit everything we do,” Stern said. We also can’t control how other people view and judge those who get infected. Getting sick does not mean you’ve failed. Blame the virus, not yourself.

Infectious diseases experts say it is no longer a realistic goal to eliminate COVID. The virus has is sticking around to the point that it’ll become an endemic — people are trying to adjust to life with the virus and making very complicated and emotionally draining risk calculations.

Stern advises her patients to recognize two truths at the same time: One, that we should continue to be as cautious as is reasonable in our lives, and two, recognize that we can only do our best in a world where there is a prevalent risk of transmission.

If you do catch COVID, don’t feel the need to explain yourself. While you might owe close contacts a quick heads up so they can test and adjust their plans, you should not feel obligated to defend or justify why you made certain choices, Stern said.

Lastly, data from the CDC shows that cases are decoupling from hospitalizations and death. Cases and positive tests are no longer the best, most reliable metric of success.

“We have to go towards hospitalizations as our metric of success, because if we don’t do that — especially with omicron, which is omnipresent — we will always think we aren’t doing well,” Gandhi said. We will always feel shame and guilt for thinking we’re not doing enough to prevent transmission or locking down as strictly as we could have.

What matters most is that we continue to pay attention to who are most vulnerable from infection, particularly those who are immunocompromised, older or kids who can’t yet get vaccinated. Taking the responsible measures to protect others is still vital. But ruminating on where and how you got COVID, or if you made a mistake, can be a futile exercise, given how very transmissible and pervasive omicron is.

“Instead, focus on the vulnerable people … and make sure they’re protected,” Gandhi said.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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