Apocalypse: Now What? Holiday shaming in a pandemic

A reader asks: How do I nicely tell friends to stay home for the holidays?

A man with a mask at an airport service counter

After a dip in travel early in the pandemic, travelers have been flocking back to airplanes in greater numbers. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving all saw concentrated peaks in travel, and December holiday travel is projected to see a similar uptick. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: What is a nice way to tell your friends or co-workers that they shouldn’t fly home for the holidays, that they are risking their parents' health?

I’m baaaaa-aaaaaack! What, you thought the apocalypse was going to end with a ballot count, a vaccine or the realization that Keith Richards will probably survive 2020? Oh no, friends, for ’tis the season for various toxic nogs, holiday ennui via digital windows and robust risk management. And, oh yeah: That last one is going to last well after the nog dries up, into 2021. Buckle up.

I promise this sequel is going to be one of the good ones — like Terminator 2 or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, not Attack of the Clones or Eat, Pray, Love 2: Eat, Pray, Love Harder.

If anything is spreading as virally as the pandemic, it’s pandemic shaming: the idea that we can or should chide friends, relatives, acquaintances or even strangers into complying with mask wearing, social distancing and other actions to stem the pandemic. Photos of crowded airports or coronavirus testing lines over the Thanksgiving holiday even generated a trending hashtag: #covidiots

But as our current political tilt-a-whirl should illustrate, shame is not the powerful tool it once was. Today, getting tarred and feathered in the town square would probably do little more than get you to a million TikTok followers. And in the pandemic, there’s ample evidence that it accomplishes the precise opposite by driving people to act emotionally rather than rationally. That can eventually undermine our shared ultimate goal — reducing coronavirus infections to zero.

All that means there’s no polite way to say, “Hey Friendly McCoworkerton — what are you doing this holiday? Flying home to kill your parents? Please consider not.” I understand how frustrating that answer might be: The pandemic is grinding us all down into frustrated little nubs of anxious flesh. Expressing that frustration feels like one of the few release valves we have: Shouting at the maskless from inside your house or car works a helluva lot better for stress relief than watching some Brit douse a savarin in Chantilly cream

But to actually engage in that conversation is a surefire way to, at best, chill relations and, at worst, drive someone to engage in risky behaviors.

Instead, what I’d encourage you to do is apply a layer of empathy to your risk-management skills. Share what you’re planning to do for the holidays, the steps you plan to take to remain safe, and why. Do it in a nonjudgmental way, as the friend that you are, who can express the concern and worry that we all feel while accepting that we’re all trying our best within a soul-crushing framework.

You can only control your actions, not the actions of others. But by opening a dialogue into how you plan to stay safe, you can build trust and a bridge — plus, you are actively floating safety strategies and getting them to reconsider their actions just by sharing your experience and priorities.

Of particular use is the “Swiss cheese” model to manage risk of infection. No single strategy is perfect (all have holes, get it?) so the idea is to layer as many of the strategies as possible to reduce risk: physical distance, masks, hand hygiene, testing, vaccines, quarantine, isolation, driving instead of flying, increasing ventilation and so on. Sharing what you know and getting people to add a layer or two help in ways that even gentle scolding toward abstinence cannot. 

Speaking of abstinence: Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus provides an especially useful metaphor by comparing coronavirus behavioral guidance to safe-sex education. No matter what we do, some people will travel and see others, and we need to do our best to compassionately educate, so that everyone we know feels as empowered as possible to act safely within their constraints. 

Marcus also underlines perhaps the most important factor: “Viruses are not moral agents, and infection isn’t a personal failure.” Our real frustrations lie with the governments (especially federal) who have failed in various ways since the beginning of the pandemic. We can channel our frustrations into demands that our institutions offer more support for those who are marginalized and at-risk, and those who must travel and expose themselves: the essential workers, the migrant farmers, grocery store employees and, of course, health care workers. 

When it comes to this, you have my permission to yell at government officials as loud and rudely as you wish.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.