D.T. Max’s piece about the harsh social side effects of COVID brings up questions about how moral duties and beliefs change when societies expand past the physical constraints of borders, and into the seemingly lawless realm of social media. Max details the stories of early COVID-19 patients around the world. Some of these individuals were frequent flyers, moving rapidly around the world, while others were seemingly low-risk for COVID, having never left the country. While they all battled COVID to varying degrees, each individual faced equally malicious attacks online, attacked by people for their “contribution” to the spread of COVID. These angry responses proved worse than the coronavirus for some people, in one instance it led a prominent Polish doctor to commit suicide. This phenomena of pandemic shaming relates to personal responsibility and morality over the Internet. The decontextualization that comes with social media can be a powerful tool for social change, but it can also be a veil that allows people to interact excessively and irresponsibly.
Strong personal ties play a vital role in moderating our use of shame and punishment with others. As shown with the virtue ethics approach, shaming others is meant to be an educational experience intended to help regulate moral behavior. This type of instruction requires an investment in the person being admonished, so the Aristotelian goals of shaming vanish when the personal connections do.
The ethics of care argues that caring is essential to mortality, as it underlines the feelings and relationships that we deem to be important. Caring about others is part of what guides us in our moral actions. As our social interactions become increasingly decontextualized and distant, people turn to the broader reaches of social media as their sole source of contact with others. With this separation, COVID shaming has emerged as a way for strangers to vent and express their disappointment in another’s actions. This type of shaming becomes more of an attack of individual character, rather than a neutral experience meant to improve future behaviors.
As a society, our hope in controlling the pandemic lies in our ability to moderate our own moral actions, as well as to help guide those of others in the right direction. As our social network becomes increasingly remote, with both close friends and strangers, how can moral lessons be properly moderated online? How can public health officials spread important information and advise against bad behavior without unleashing a firestorm on a defenseless COVID patient? How will our shaming patterns developed during this pandemic persist in the future?