My entire household tested positive for Covid in November. The diagnoses came like a slow-moving take-down of a house of cards. One by one, the POSITIVE texts arrived from Alberta Health Services (AHS). And for weeks after I was baffled by my embarrassment.
It was the first feeling I expressed to my husband. I didn’t say I was “afraid”. Or “worried”. I said, “I’m so embarrassed.” We hadn’t even brushed our teeth yet and I was already expressing a feeling that is generally foreign to me, a middle-aged woman who lives her work and life as though she has nothing to lose. All of a sudden I felt shame.
We have become obsessed with privacy during this pandemic. As though privacy is an option with a pandemic that is not choosy in its host. We quietly get our diagnosis and, up until November’s second wave, AHS would quietly collect our contacts and discreetly inform them that “someone” in close contact has Covid.
Well those days are over. Our province is so overwhelmed with Covid that contact tracing is backlogged and we’ve been asked to make those calls ourselves. To “out” ourselves.
As our results trickled in over three days I said it about two dozen times, “We have Covid”. It was no small feat sending text after text, in the haze of fever and aches, without the pleasure of smelling my morning coffee or, really, smelling anything at all.
But if my texts had a voice, that voice would have been barely above a whisper. And the responses, though almost entirely kind and sympathetic, had an air of hushed mystery.
No!! What?!? How? When??
Now before the Covid-shamers get all hot-and-bothered, we followed every rule to the letter. No house parties, no travel, and even no extracurriculars for the kids. Since day one we adopted mask-wearing with a sense of duty, hand washing became a source of pride and comfort, and we managed to make endless days at home together fun or at least tolerable.
And that’s the issue. It’s not my shame. It’s the shame being passed around as fast as Covid can spread, by people I’ll likely never meet, anonymous people that just don’t get it. I remember during the early lockdown, being shamed on social media for something as benign as a dog-walk with another family in our bubble. The Covid shaming started then.
Shame is a funny thing. It’s a slippery downward spiral that starts with guilt. For me it was the mom guilt I felt when I told my daughter that she is positive. Her sweet little face looking up at me, with no idea what this really meant. How could I have let this happen to her? We still don’t know what the long-term effect of Covid will be on this girl who is just getting her life rolling.
But for her, the first instinct was to grab her iPad and text her friends. There was no shame. Her texts were not whispers, but yells. For her this was just some new, unusual experience, not a pandemic that has affected millions.
I look back on the early days of Covid. The virus was “over there”. It was so easy to dismiss until the first case arrived in the US. Then all of a sudden it took on a Canadian face, and started its way across the country. But I could still be a little smug that we were doing everything right, and could control the outcome for my family. Not so.
To my community: I had Covid. This disease can infect someone like me, someone like you. A parent of two young kids, who works from home as a non-profit executive consultant, co-chairs her kids’ school council, walks her dog daily and gets groceries with a mask. It’s not a disease of “someone” who attended some clandestine, underground cocktail party. Or went into a Costco without a mask.
Perhaps it’s easier to believe that Covid happens to reckless people, to marginalized people, to people in crowded spaces or with pre-existing conditions. If we limit the spread in our minds to the “others”, we can just go about our day, with our mask on, and hand sanitizer in the centre console of our car.
Unfortunately that’s not the case. Covid can happen to all people, somewhat equally. And treating it with such secrecy will only perpetuate the spread. Instead we need to open up the conversation, push through the embarrassment, share our stories and perhaps risk having a Covid-shamer bite back.
For me, what started with a single text ballooned into a jam-packed inbox of questions and conversation. It was like my own little public health communications system and maybe somehow I made a small difference. It was therapeutic too. As I shared and shared, my voice got louder with every text and phone call, until my voice drowned out the shame.