The Crippling Effects of Public Shaming during COVID-19

The article The Public-Shaming Pandemic highlights the effects of harsh online denunciation towards individuals who unintentionally spread COVID-19. While it is understandable why people may be angry at these individuals, the extent to which these individuals are shamed and the devastating effects it has on their lives makes it questionable. Under the framework of virtue ethics, the concept of shaming as a mechanism to realign people with social responsibility may be respectable, but public shaming through modern online platforms during this pandemic seems to have become more of a mechanism for punishment. Internet attacks received at a pace like rapid fire have had detrimental effects on the livelihoods and well beings of COVID-spreaders, many of whom had no intention of spreading the disease to others or didn’t fully understand what was considered proper behavior early on in the pandemic.

In the midst of this pandemic, I think it is important to remember that we are all trying to navigate this together. While it is necessary to remind people of their social responsibility during this pandemic, the motivation behind extreme attacks like death threats seems to be less about regulating personal behavior and more about harassment. When these individuals’ lives are so drastically turned upside down, there is no opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes, ultimately making this kind of public shaming not only damaging, but also counterproductive. 

That is not to say that reckless behavior should not be addressed during this pandemic, but there needs to be ways of condemning harmful societal behaviors without completely crippling an individuals’ character. One of the ways that may help to alleviate the devastation of public shaming is by keeping medical and other personal information private. Low patient profiles would decrease opportunities for impulsive attacks and mass outrage towards already vulnerable individuals like Nhung, who, because of her publicized COVID-19 diagnosis in Vietnam, received harsh criticism and had some people spreading misinformation about her whereabouts even when she was lying in a hospital bed. Another consideration that might help to find this balance is whether social media, because of its potential to spread misinformation and generate mass harassment, could ever effectively play a role in censuring behavior. And if not, what are some practical alternatives?

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