In June of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic is still very present, a 37-year-old Washington socialite decided to host a dinner party in her backyard following a successful fundraiser. After the picture-perfect function, several guests and the hostess tested positive for Covid-19. Despite the guidelines, the woman who threw the party did not inform anyone of her diagnosis for a couple of days. When the rumors spread, some of the guests requested her to take the pictures of the dinner party off social media, which she eventually did. There are other cases you might have heard of, of politicians who failed to notify the public or quarantine immediately after being found positive. And if it happens with public figures, there must be many more cases of private individuals we are unaware of.
It’s common knowledge (or at least we hope it is) that the moment one finds out they are Covid-19 positive, their first job should be to notify anyone they have been in contact with during the days prior to the diagnosis. So why do some coronavirus-positive individuals choose to wait hours or days to inform others of their diagnosis, or even choose not to share it at all? These are the main psychological reasons, according to behavioral experts, alongside some important tips on how we can encourage more transparency.
Being diagnosed with Covid-19 can trigger a wave of emotions in different people, ranging from shock or disbelief to anger, uncertainty, guilt, shame, confusion, panic, fear, sadness, concern for their future, worry for their family, the list goes on. “Since many people that test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic, that only adds to the uncertainty and confusion when receiving positive results,” explained Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California.
These overwhelming emotional reactions can leave a person frozen or struggling to process what’s happened and what are the next steps he or she should take. It can be tempting to avoid reality and just do nothing, even knowing it could be harmful. If you or a loved one is in this position, experts advise focusing on the thought that by letting people know, you are protecting their and your health and moving forward one step at a time.
Being infected with Covid-19 is not the same as being infected with any other disease, like the flu. In an environment where not everyone takes the virus seriously, and some refuse to comply with social distancing and safety recommendations, there is a sense that some people contract the virus due to their own carelessness. This can lead to a sense of shame in someone who tests positive, even if they have been abiding by all the guidelines and taking all the necessary precautions. The shame stems from the fear people will think they ‘brought this onto themselves' or judge them harshly for their actions or inaction.
What’s important to remember, according to the experts, is that even if you’re doing your best to stay safe there is no such thing as perfect. There is no need to set an unrealistic standard when there will always be risk factors that are out of your control.
Stuempfig stresses we need to let go of the false “just world” conception ― the cognitive bias that a person’s actions result in fair and well-deserved consequences. “We can do everything right and still become infected without even knowing it. We need to stop judging others for their behavior because it only serves to further the stigma and fear surrounding this virus. The bottom line is we do not know what is going on in someone’s personal life, and chances are they are doing their best to get through this very difficult time.”
Not everyone has a job which allows them to work from home, or take time off when they’re sick. This can put those who test positive in a moral dilemma - on the one hand, they simply cannot afford to miss a paycheck, on the other hand by not informing their work they have been infected, they put the health of all their co-workers at risk. It can be enhanced for those who are asymptomatic as it can be hard to believe they are a threat to others when they feel perfectly fine themselves.
While taking a hiatus of a week or two can seem financially intimidating, remember that individual employers can do their part in limiting the spread as well. They can establish clear methods of confidentiality regarding positive test results and paid sick leave. In any case, notifying your employer would be the best thing to do.
As we noted in the first section, dealing with emotionally overwhelming information can lead some people to avoid reality, or in other words, denial. It can be easy to believe that if you just go on about your daily business as usual, the whole thing would go away, especially if there aren’t any active symptoms.
If you experienced a long waiting period for your result, keeping the information private can be tempting. After all, you have already been functioning in the world while infected without knowing it, and probably exposed others to the virus. The thought process may be: ‘What’s the benefit of changing things now? I’ve already exposed those around me,’ explained Stuempfig. While that is a very human reaction, acting on it would be irresponsible and dangerous.
As Cvoid-19 is a novel and complicated disease, scientists and the public are learning more about it, and the ways to prevent it, in real-time. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about the coronavirus, especially on social media.
It can get difficult to differentiate high-quality and low-quality information. “Remember that there are individuals who have spent their entire careers studying and preparing for pandemics,” says Laura Boxley, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. If you aren’t sure which information sources are reliable, always opt for scientific institutions such as The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which always have the most recent information, even as guidelines and advice shift.
If you found this article helpful, share it with family and friends!