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Against Sickness Shaming

My battery of COVID tests (First one's faint positive line has faded)

There are many euphemisms for being sick: under the weather, unwell, out of sorts. When I had cancer, many people whispered the word like it was contagious. Relatives cringed at my honest recounting of my patient experience on my blog and later in my books. Response to my cancer swung from, “oh, it is just your turn to get cancer,” to “your blog is too difficult to read.” The common reaction was to minimize or turn away from me and my cancer, leaving me and my close family members alone in our suffering.

The COVID pandemic has brought on next level sickness shaming. Only a few brave souls dare admit publicly when they have COVID. Posting about your infection online opens you up to scrutiny – one side chides you for not being careful enough and from the other side, the anti-vaxx and anti-mask trolls crawl out from under their rocks. Suddenly everybody has an unsolicited opinion about being sick, so people are hiding the fact that they are sick. That is dangerous in a pandemic which features a contagious mutating virus.

This is all by design. In their rush to “back to normal,” governments have purposely squashed stories of people who have COVID. Where I live, PCR testing and Paxlovid prescriptions are nearly inaccessible. Boosters are suggested but red tape and gatekeeping makes them hard to come by. And masks have fallen by the wayside even in health care settings.

I have a history of telling the truth about my health care experiences. While nobody – including public figures – should be forced to disclose their personal health information, keeping COVID a secret pushes it further and further into the margins. Stigma and shame grow in the shadows.

The only antidote is to tell the truth.

I tested positive for COVID on August 5, 2023. It was my first time having COVID. I still don’t know where I got it from. I’ve been socializing outside but have gotten sloppy these past three months and eaten indoors. That’s on me.

It was NOT just a cold. The symptoms were like a horrible bad cold combined with a ‘flu, but I'm aware COVID can also wreak havoc on one's vascular system. I finally tested negative today, ten days in. I've been fortunate to have all the boosters, so I wasn't as sick as I could have been because I'm vaccinated. My health hasn’t been great this past year, so I have not bounced back. I’m scared of getting long COVID. My only saving grace is that I masked and isolated from our son Aaron and he was spared.

The shame associated with catching this virus is suppressing patient truth. This plays directly into Public Health’s PR handbook. They’ve made getting COVID an individual responsibility so they can point fingers and blame the patient instead of creating policies to prevent people from getting sick from COVID to begin with. Preventative medicine is dead.

Blaming patients is a tired old technique. If it is my fault I’ve gotten cancer or COVID, then the health care system minimizes their own response to help me. While I received medical treatment for my cancer, psychological and social supports were non-existent. COVID is shrugged off in the same way. People are forced back to work when they are sick. No friends or family step up anymore to offer to drop off groceries. There’s no mandated sick time or universal basic income. Objective media coverage is rare. Long COVID supports are dwindling.

I'll stand with you if you step out of the shadows and tell your truth.

Being sick is not something to be ashamed of. But hanging sick people out to dry, piling on stigma, and not enforcing societal measures to prevent sickness to begin with - THAT is what is shameful.

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