Positive coronavirus test? Canadians worry their neighbors will find out

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Written by Catherine Porter

For a time, Cortland Cronk, 26, was Canada’s most famous — and infamous — coronavirus patient.

Cronk, a traveling salesman went viral after testing positive in November and recounting his story of being infected while traveling for work to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

He was called a virus-spreader, a job-killer, a liar and a sleaze. Online memes painted him as the Grinch, since subsequent outbreaks led to restrictions against Christmas parties. Many people, including a newspaper columnist, made elaborate fun of his name.

He also received threats; so many that he fled his hometown Saint John, New Brunswick, for Victoria, British Columbia — a city on the opposite end of the country, 3,600 miles away.

“They were acting like I purposely got COVID,” Cronk said from his new apartment. “I had hundreds of death threats per day. People telling me I should be publicly stoned.”

Many Canadians believed it was just rewards and that his case formed a cautionary tale to others who flagrantly break the rules, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Some even think more formal shaming should happen in Canada, with governments not just fining culprits for breaking coronavirus regulations, but broadcasting their names.

Others have argued Cronk is a victim of a worsening civic problem — public shaming of people testing positive — which is not just unfair but ineffective and that makes the coronavirus harder to quash.

“It might feel like a release for the community, but it does very little to prevent virus transmission,” said Robert Huish, an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who is conducting a study on the coronavirus and stigma. “In the process, we are causing people harm.”

Canadians might be known internationally as nice, apologetic and fair-minded. But, a year after the pandemic arrived, some Canadians worry it has exposed a very different national persona: judgmental, suspicious and vengeful. COVID-shaming has become fervent in parts of the country, with locals calling for the heads of not just politicians and doctors breaking the rules, but their own family members and neighbors.

“It’s not getting COVID — it’s breaking the rules that worries us,” said Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and English professor at the University of Toronto, noting that a Canadian foundational motto is “peace, order and good government.”

“What’s the key point? It’s order,” he said. “For order to be sustained, we have to follow the rules. Canadians are a distinctly rule-focused and rule-following people.”

Complaint lines — or so-called “snitch lines” — set up across Canada have been flooded with tips about people suspected of breaking quarantine rules, businesses flouting public health restrictions and outsiders, arriving with unfamiliar license plates, potentially bringing the disease with them.

Facebook groups are full of stories of people being labeled potential vectors and being refused service, disinvited from family gatherings and reported to the police and public health authorities.

“This is impacting our ability to contain the virus,” said Dr. Ryan Sommers, one of eight public health doctors in Nova Scotia who published a letter beseeching locals in the small Atlantic province to stop shaming one another, as fear of discrimination was delaying reports of COVID symptoms and potentially driving cases underground.

The province has one of the lowest COVID rates in the country: just 18 active cases, as of Feb 20. But instead of offering solace, people have become hypervigilant, Sommers said.

“We want to create a social norm, where people will be supportive and caring and compassionate” Sommers said. “Social media can be more virulent than the virus itself.”

In the country’s four eastern provinces, which have enforced self-isolation rules for anyone entering the region, the shaming is not just online, Huish said. It’s intimate, particularly in small communities, where “community cohesion quickly flips to become community surveillance.”

Trisha Girouard said a member of her extended family reported her to public health officials after learning she was driving from her home in Irishtown, New Brunswick, across the border to Maine to work as a nurse. She was disinvited from a family baby shower, even though she was complying by self-isolation guidelines, she said.

The sense of being policed by her small community made her feel so frightened, she didn’t dare walk into a coffee shop one day to use the washroom — instead choosing to urinate in a cup in the back of her truck.

“I’m an educated person, but that’s how worked up they had me,” she said in an interview, referring to her extended family.

Some say the fear of stigma has become worse than the fear of catching the disease.

Recently, after taking her second mandatory coronavirus test, Jennifer Hutton pulled out her suitcases, preparing to leave Halifax, Nova Scotia, if she tested positive. She envisioned a front-page newspaper story saying she had brought the virus into the community because she travels for her job as an IT director for a medical supply company, she said.

Already, she had received a cold reception from local stores and a profane note had been put on her vehicle, which had Ontario license plates, telling her to go “home and take the rona with you.” “I just couldn’t handle any more stigma,” she said.

Few victims of public shaming have become as famous as Cronk, the New Brunswicker who contracted coronavirus on a business trip.

He initially had no symptoms, so was not required to self-isolate upon returning, he said.

Nine days later, he exhibited a few symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus, so the health department began contact tracing. After local media did a story about a frustrated store owner disbelieving his staff had been exposed to the virus, Cronk worried he’d be outed as the source of the exposure, knowing he had visited the store.

“Saint John is very small,” he said. “I knew it was matter of time before my name was spoken.” So, he approached the CBC network to “get the story straight, before chatter got around.” To his knowledge, none of his contacts tested positive and he was never ticketed by police for breaking public emergency regulations, he said.

Afterward, a video clip from his Instagram account promoting his marijuana supply business, “Cronk Grow Nutrients” made the rounds on Twitter. In it, Cronk said he “can’t taste a thing right now” and detailed the many trips he had taken that month. Many assumed he had been knowingly, carelessly spreading the virus.

The optics, and the timing, were terrible: As the memes multiplied, the province’s top doctor announced a surge in cases and the premier declared a crackdown on Christmas travel and gatherings. Online, Cronk was deemed New Brunswick’s infector-in-chief.

“There wasn’t a lesson to be learned,” said Cronk. “I was shamed for no reason.”

Historically, stigma and shaming have faithfully trailed pandemics, said David Barnes, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the history of infectious diseases and epidemics. During the plague in Europe, Jewish people became convenient scapegoats. During the cholera epidemic in Britain in the 19th century, working-class Irish people were blamed, Barnes said.

Most recently, gay men and Haitians were stigmatized during the AIDS epidemic in the United States.

“We make ourselves feel safer and superior by associating disease with people who are not like us, do things we don’t do, or come from places unlike our place,” said Barnes. “We shouldn’t be surprised.”

A recent poll from British Columbia revealed that flouting coronavirus public safety regulations was common, with around half of respondents admitting they had frequented bars or restaurants with people outside their household — a no-no under the provincial regulations. However, around 60% said they thought they were doing a better job than others following the rules.

While some politicians and public health experts across the country are sounding an alarm about the trend of shaming, others are calling out for more.

In Manitoba, the premier began to publicly name businesses fined for breaking pandemic regulations in November. Since then, a list of their names is published every week.

“For many people, the scorn and contempt and disapproval of their neighbors will be at least as effective as a fine,” said Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

Schafer believes people who are fined for breaking the rules should be publicly named, too.

“We need to fully exploit every kind of deterrent,” he said. “Nobody wants to be seen as a terrible community neighbor.”

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