Shame fatigue and unscientific COVID restrictions are backfiring

Shame fatigue and unscientific COVID restrictions are backfiring
Fredy Sanan sits on the steps leading up to his first-floor Chelsea, MA apartment on May 8, 2020.Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • If the 1980s should have taught us anything, it's that "Just Say No" doesn't work. And yet, "cancel everything" COVID edicts are still being dropped on a weary public.
  • Overbroad lockdowns are producing "shame fatigue," where people who want to be responsible during the pandemic start to tune out authority figures whose hypocrisy and inconsistency are painfully transparent.
  • It's not too much to ask that government orders be rooted in science.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

If the 1980s should have taught us anything, it's that "Just Say No" doesn't work.

While there's certainly still concerns about lawmakers downplaying the virus, overbearing scolds in government - quite often, Democrats - are going too far the other way. These officials continue to implement scientifically incoherent restrictions on everyday life and commerce, and it's coming back to hurt us.

The result of overbroad lockdowns and crackdowns is shame fatigue - a pattern in which people who truly want to be responsible during the pandemic start to tune out overly harsh authority figures whose hypocrisy and inconsistency are painfully transparent.

UC San Francisco infectious-disease specialist Dr. Monica Gandhi told the Los Angeles Times: "It's not because the public is irresponsible; it's because they are losing trust in public health officials who put out arbitrary restrictions … We are failing in our public health messaging."

The way abstinence-only sex education was widely deemed a failure, "cancel everything" edicts - like those imposed in California - are inviting backlash.


Authority undermining itself

When the doors of everyday life slammed shut in March there was good reason for it.

Thanks in large part to the lies of the Chinese government and the fecklessness of the World Health Organization which credulously repeated such lies, precious little was known about COVID-19 when it began to spread around the world.

Then there were the US science authorities telling us to wash our hands and not buy masks, which ended up being a "well-meaning" lie to keep masks available for first responders until supply could catch up with demand. But that lie helped sow the seeds of COVID denialism.

Given the uncertainty and lack of preparation, stringent rules made sense. But we've learned a lot since then.

Now we know that airborne spread is far more likely and dangerous than surfaces. We know that outdoor transmissibility is exceedingly rare. We know that "bubbles" of strictly small groups who have been tested for COVID and who otherwise responsibly maintain social distancing are generally safe.


In right-leaning clumps of this country, a tragically ingrained COVID-denialism runs rampant, thanks in large part to President Donald Trump's very stupid anti-mask crusade. It's become a point of pride for some people to put themselves in situations with the greatest likelihood of exposing themselves and everyone around them to airborne viral loads.

The result, unsurprisingly, has been disastrous.

Over a quarter-million Americans are dead from the coronavirus, a number which some experts say could double by Spring.

The pandemic has revealed just how precarious maintaining a society can be, while also serving as a reminder that personal relationships are all you're going to care about on your deathbed. Scoldingly telling people that "it's not hard" to indefinitely avoid loved ones isn't an effective - or honest - message.

Relatedly, there's a world of difference between hosting a 25-person Thanksgiving dinner and seeing one's elderly parents while taking appropriate precautions and testing negative for COVID. And taking a socially-distanced jog with a friend (currently against the rules in Southern California) is not remotely analogous to attending a crowded indoor hot yoga class.


While not as viscerally appalling as pure COVID denialism, over-shaming may be more pernicious. By presenting a black-and-white vision - rather than a spectrum of risk factors - government officials undermine their own authority, as well as the public's faith in science.

In an era of mass isolation, there's still too little empathy for people who want to see their families, who want their kids to be educated, who want to keep their businesses alive. And there's far too much scolding of "selfishness," particularly with what's been called a mental health "epidemic" upon us.

Arbitrary restrictions that forbid restaurants from operating outdoor dining, but exempt massive media corporations, are a neon-lit advertisement to flout the socially distancing guidelines.

Authority should bear responsibility, and the least we should expect from government orders is that they be rooted in science and not so severe that a reasonable person wouldn't be inclined to blow them off.