Illustration by Mouad Kouttrab

Battling Covid-19 was Hard Enough. I Didn’t Need The Shame as Well.

Our campus already has a detailed plan for how to respond to Covid-19 cases. Let’s trust the experts to do their job, and let’s focus on doing ours: being supportive friends and compassionate community members.

Nov 8, 2020

It was June 16, my 22nd birthday. I woke up with an itchy throat, which slowly descended into a fever over the next few days. Initially, I just isolated myself from my parents and took herbal medicines, hoping it would pass, like any of the other times I’ve had the flu. But it didn’t.
On day five, still not getting better, I started feeling increasingly weak and had some difficulty breathing. I was too scared to even tell my parents. It wasn’t their reaction that worried me, but the very recognition that I may have contracted the dreaded coronavirus, the fear of what it might do to me and the shame that something I did gave it access to my body, my home and possibly, my parents.
The pandemic has exacerbated all kinds of prejudices globally. By playing on our innermost fears and vulnerabilities — about our health, wellbeing, financial security — it has brought out inherent xenophobia that lay dormant in otherwise stable times. In the U.S., Black and Asian Americans have experienced increased discrimination amid the Covid-19 outbreak. In India, a surge in atrocities against Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis has been reported under the lockdown, including an increase in the barbaric practice of untouchability, justified by social distancing measures. Fear, ignorance and anxiety are, ultimately, a very dangerous combination.
In such an environment, where Muslims were being blamed for the pandemic in India, I was terrified to tell my friends that I’d contracted it. What would they think of me? What would their parents say about me? These questions raced in my mind as I was admitted in a hospital for Covid-19. I had barely stepped out of the house, worn a mask at all times and had not met more than four people all week. So why did it feel like such a crippling moral failure?
Shortness of breath, the loss of taste and smell, overwhelming loneliness and the impending fear of passing the virus to loved ones felt bad enough already. I didn’t need the shame as well.
As it turns out, Covid-19 shaming is a real phenomenon, strongly intensified by social media. “There’s never been a society that hasn’t moralized disease, ever,” explained University of Pennsylvania professor David Barnes, adding that people shame or stigmatize when they feel threatened; in search for an explanation, they find a scapegoat.
According to Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies social media, shaming helps reassure people that they have done things correctly and that the other person must have made a mistake. “It’s a way of putting a wall between ourselves and the people who are getting sick,” she stated, calling this magical protection and fantasy.
Amid all these toxic coping mechanisms, from xenophobia to shaming, what can we, at NYU Abu Dhabi, do as we battle the virus on Saadiyat, as it inevitably seeps through our walls, into our residential buildings, in spite of temperature checks and symptom checkers?
This has been a stressful week for our community. Beyond strictly following the guidelines and being mindful of each other’s boundaries, perhaps what’s left to say is be kind and empathetic to one another. Our campus already has a detailed plan for how to respond to Covid-19 cases — let’s trust the experts to do their job, and let’s focus on doing ours: being supportive friends and compassionate community members.
When you hear of someone contracting the virus, let your first thoughts be, “Are they alright? How can we support them?” instead of “How did they contract it? Were they not wearing their mask around campus?”
There isn’t a single person whose life hasn’t been dislodged by the pandemic. Some of our parents are healthcare workers, tussling with the virus on a daily basis. Others are struggling with a pandemic-induced financial crisis. Some of our family members have contracted Covid-19. And some of us have. Some of us will.
I remember lying in the hospital bed, with an intravenous drip in my right wrist and anxiety taking over. My PCR test came negative, but the doctors pointed to pneumonia in my lungs. No one else in my home contracted it from me, nor did the three friends I had met the week before. Nothing made sense, but it all got better. And at least, amid all the chaos, there’s some solace in the fact that we’re in this together.
Kaashif Hajee is Editor in Chief. Email him feedback at
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