COVID spike brings out 'blaming and shaming'

·3 min read

Most Atlantic Canadians gathered with friends or family outside of their households over the holidays.

But now that New Brunswick is seeing rising case numbers, with some linked to holiday gatherings which may or may not have been kept to under 20 people – as allowed in the yellow phase of COVID recovery – the virtual knives have come out for those who gathered.

Families who have contracted the virus have been outed online, others have been shamed and blamed with varying degrees of anonymity preserved.

This blaming and shaming phenomenon we are seeing is nothing new, said Crandall University sociology professor Adam Stewart.

“Right now, a lot of people are making comments online, often generic, about people they don’t know or don’t know well,” he said, noting they are doing it trying to control behaviour in a situation that feels to many otherwise outside their control.

“We are afraid of what’s happening, so we lash out,” Stewart said. “That’s how we try and manage the risk and hope it has the intended effect.”

According to a recent poll by Leger, 41 per cent of Atlantic Canadians say they joined with family two to three times during the holiday season. Another 27 per cent said they visited once, while four per cent say they gathered more than three times. Only 28 per cent said they refrained from visiting others.

But, many of the people doing the blaming and shaming may have engaged in risky behaviours of their own, Stewart said, or in this case, at least gathered with their own extended family or friends, as this poll indicates, but they were lucky that none of their family members had or transmitted COVID.

“People will often shame people when they just think someone broke a rule,” he said, even if the person doing the blaming may have behaved similarly, but under different circumstances.

There are all kinds of circumstances why someone could contract COVID or be more likely to contract COVID, but we as humans don’t tend to care about that, Stewart said. “When we shame, we don’t usually investigate the facts enough."

Instead, we try to choose a “culprit” because we feel better when we find a scapegoat and type that comment online, he said, something that feels easy to understand, even if it is unfair.

The Maritimes saw this type of behaviour much earlier in the pandemic, Stewart said, when people with out-of-province licence plates were targeted with vitriol, even if they had legitimate reasons for being in New Brunswick.

Posts would often pop up by individuals who wanted their neighbours to know a Quebec or Ontario plate was spotted in a parking lot or driving down the road.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's Chief Medical Officer of Health, has asked New Brunswickers to offer compassion and aid to those who have contracted the virus or may be self-isolating, reminding us that anyone could contract the virus and nobody wants to catch it or spread it.

“Nobody sets out to spread the virus. It happens without our knowledge. But it’s happening all the same,” Russell said at a COVID-19 briefing on Thursday. “Please treat your fellow New Brunswickers with kindness and compassion. No one should be subjected to public pressure on social media or elsewhere because they may have had the virus.”

The Leger poll was completed online from Dec. 30, 2020, to Jan. 3, 2021, and consisted of 1,506 Canadians. A margin of error cannot be associated, as it was a non-probability sample in a panel survey. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size would have a margin of error ±2.53%, 19 times out of 20.

Clara Pasieka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal