If I followed me on Instagram, I would mute myself so quickly.
I found myself thinking this often over the last two years, shame winding its way into the back of my brain after I’d log on to share my daily array of Covid-related information.
My posts were normal enough: mutual aid links, articles about the latest science from people I trusted, memes made by disabled friends about what it was like to be sick. But then I’d add selfies, below which I’d write paragraphs processing what it was like to watch others make different decisions than me during Covid. “I’m not going to look at some of you the same way again,” one of my most memorable posts said.
These posts almost always came after I’d seen something online I wished I hadn’t – someone at a party having fun, a tweet that I felt minimised the horrors of this moment. My kneejerk reaction was to be disappointed, loudly and aimlessly.
This did not fix things, but turned me into a real-life version of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with his wall of suspects and red string, assessing who was trustworthy and who had moved down the rankings. The things people posted, or didn’t post, became a treatise on their own Coronavirus Pandemic Rollout Plan, every acquaintance promoted to the role of public health official. People in my social circle were quickly rendered into a false flatness, one that made me feel in control at a time when we all so desperately sought – and failed to find – any semblance of control. Soon, it became a constant, near obsessive monitoring.
After all, to realise that the people we love choose to approach a critical situation in a drastically different manner can be devastating. But at a time when so many were talking about what new forms of caring for each other could look like, there didn’t seem room for a harm-reduction approach for how to engage with people making decisions that felt aberrant to “What Was Currently Acceptable To Be Doing”. Did we pause to make sure all our definitions were the same, to assemble a glossary and add in the necessary asterisks, to ask who could be doing what was “acceptable” and who decided what that term meant? Who was the arbiter, and who granted exceptions?
How do we navigate empathy when the structures meant to “care” for us are breaking or nonexistent?
Blame, like grief, feels ambient in these times. There is too much of it. Nowhere to place it squarely, nowhere to lay it to rest.
Early in the pandemic I felt myself toggling between the weight of what was happening around us and smaller, more textural sins – the ones I felt I could understand, or at least use as distraction from larger and more unbearable truths.
I yearned for the partiers to be publicly shamed. I didn’t want them to be sick, but there was a sort of knowing “figures …” when they would test positive for Covid. I hated myself for thinking this, and I thought it anyway. Me, who has been chronically ill my whole life, who has a body that constantly fails me, a brain that careens often into darker corners I would rather not go – I couldn’t bridge the gap.
I have felt aches in the depths of my joints, the drag of constant and inexplicable fatigue, gaps in my memory making much of my life feel porous – all symptoms linked to long Covid, too. I didn’t want anyone else to be sick.
I tried to resist the thoughts that people who had been travelling, who had been able to post about it as the virus raged, deserved to get Covid. I knew that wasn’t how it worked, though.
No one deserves to get sick, and more so, sickness doesn’t care. It can’t see what we post, it doesn’t take into account our moral positioning. A hermetic existence may have not been able to prevent you or a loved one from getting sick. Illness is unknowable, uncertain and inevitable. Perhaps that’s why it scares us so much.
In the absolute despairs of isolation, I found myself talking so much about community, but did very little to tap into mine. I would preach to strangers, judge my friends, shout into the void – all while my body hurt more than ever, like a neon exit sign begging me to stop. If only I read a few more posts about this cataclysmic situation we’re all living through, if only I shared a couple more links, then perhaps this would change things. Try caps lock next time. Rinse, repeat.
I asked others about their experiences with shaming and the pandemic, and found a myriad of answers. Some people felt like me. Others seemed to go in the opposite direction, becoming angrier or more isolated. One person said: “Early pandemic me looked a lot like childhood evangelical me.” Another wrote: “Immunocompromised and spent lots of time fuming about people not caring if they kill me. Letting that go a little has helped my insides rot less.”
“I had the opposite experience. I work in the ICU and started getting furious as the vaccine came out, beds were full,” a medical worker replied.
“Realised there is too much focus on the unvaccinated and not enough focus on the politicians not working to increase the resources in our healthcare system,” one said. “Moral superiority at the beginning was comforting, now I know assessing actual risk is hard,” someone else replied.
After months of this negative thought pattern – one which pushed people away from me – a thought came to me. What if I thought about a pandemic response as I think about my chronic pain – a process of management rather than an elusive cure?
I started to remind myself that everyone is processing this terrifying moment differently, and I can’t change that. It is in this way I’ve been able to connect with people in my life more genuinely: with compassion. I tried to become more of a wayward guide instead of a preacher trying to advocate abstinence.
With the lack of a superstructure to guide us through uncertainties, we all become our own experts fumbling around in the dark. This mirrors itself in the fleeting and ever-changing policies imposed on us. It’s not simply our instincts to blame others that has caused a fixation on the individual, but a deliberate side-effect of the powers that be failing to take measures to establish systemic solutions.
In the vacuum of inaction and misaction, we are left angry, confused and uncertain about where to direct that rage. It simmers up in the oddest directions, molten-hot bile ready to crawl its way out as a 30-tweet thread.
To refocus and reframe how we judge others is crucial. It does not mean we will forget this moment, or gloss over the reality of our crumbling world. It is to sit beside it and find ways to create, to restore joy, to re-energize, to help others, to be kind to yourself.
It is to accept that everyone will get sick someday – whether from Covid or not.
It is to be ready to love, to cherish, to nourish, without blame. Without shame.
This is an edited excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in Please Clap. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions: