How to deal with COVID-unsafe people.
How do you navigate relationships with other friends and family members who are still unable to admit that COVID is worth taking seriously?
Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly beg people to either stop dating someone or to ask their crush out. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency.
A SWEETIE PIE:
I’ve talked to so many of my friends about this problem, and how we are all experiencing it to some degree but no one can really come up with a solid solution. The problem is how best to navigate relationships with other friends and family members who are still unable to admit that COVID is worth taking seriously, or they claim to be taking it seriously but their actions show something else entirely. Do you have any advice for how to deal with this in the midst of this ongoing pandemic, and also in the future when the majority of vaccines have been distributed and a (hopefully) more normal life can resume?
I’m currently on the west coast, but most of my family and college friends live in the midwest and the southern part of the US. So there are definitely some people in the bunch that are hooked up to a steady diet of Fox News that you would expect to still repeat those “COVID is a hoax” talking points. But I’m not in super close contact with them on a regular basis, especially now that most family functions are postponed and we can’t travel to see them for any holidays. The people I’m talking about are family members and friends that I have had somewhat regular (but remote) contact with who continue to post their unmasked pictures with large groups at crowded places with celebratory hashtags that come across as absurd and surreal.
Like everyone else, I’ve had several friends and family members get COVID. But surprisingly, they’ve all recovered. Which is amazing! But almost all of them resumed normal pre-pandemic activities immediately afterwards. I realize I am extremely lucky to only know a few people personally who have had it and even luckier that they completely recovered. I am also very privileged to have already been working mainly at home before this hit, and so I realize my own personal situation was already better equipped to stay the fuck out of society. I live with people who also have found a way to work at home, and/or are able to get some unemployment benefits, and none of us have been inside a store or anywhere else for almost a year at this point. Yeah, it sucks, and we are all tired, but we’ve found a way to make it work because it’s worth it to keep ourselves healthy and not spread it around if we did become symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers.
I know we are taking it to the extreme, and I'm not expecting other people to do the same. But when I see people on social media at non-necessary functions or even on vacation (!) I get so angry. Mostly I’m just baffled by this behavior and I’m not really sure how to address it, or even if I should just stay the fuck out of it. Half of the time I want to say something productive, or provide some sort of factual information to address a blatant untruth, but usually the casual nature by which people just straight up dismiss those facts because they themselves haven't gotten it (or they have, and recovered) has me almost paralyzed from responding. But then I wonder if it’s even worth the energy to try and present those facts in the first place, because then I’m coming off like an asshole just by judging their choices. Which also might not actually help, but could even hurt the situation and any of these relationships. So I usually just mute them on social media, and move on. But then I swing back to thinking that if anyone could get through to them, it would be a close friend or family member. I’m also just really worried I won’t be able to look at or interact with these same people without bringing these things up once things are a little bit more normal. It’s already hard enough when I’m having to do work zooms with these people, or phone conversations with family members. Any advice is much appreciated!
This is the type of letter, which I receive not infrequently, that I could have written almost line for line myself. I, like you, am both extremely privileged and extremely cautious about COVID. Like you, I understand that a lot of people cannot be cautious about COVID in the same ways I can for all kinds of reasons: jobs, health, money, etc. I understand that a lot of the spread of COVID has been due to the lack of protections and money given to people who need it.
I also find myself not just miffed but occasionally bitterly resentful or morally outraged by the people who are similarly privileged as I am, who are perfectly able to be cautious, but who are not just not being careful, but seemingly flaunting their selfishness. The rest of this post is going to address these people, NOT the people who are forced to go out in this world to work as essential workers or who are not able to (for whatever reason) be home/work from home, etc.
So, first things first: I feel you. It is very difficult to not feel deep ire aimed at those who are choosing to SELFISHLY ignore the collective action problem at hand simply because it’s hard for them and they’re going to probably personally be ok, even if other people won’t be. I feel mad about this, too. To me, some people’s actions feel like drunk driving: not just a danger to yourself, but a danger to others. Selfish, risky, AND unnecessary. I think it’s very morally damning to act in a way that benefits yourself and puts others at risk of dying for the sake of fun. It’s also reasonable to feel angry that we all could have done a month or two long lockdown at some point and possibly ended this thing.
HOWEVER, part of the reason we all didn’t do that, part of the reason that people are ok with acting selfishly, part of the reason that people are still dining out and meeting up and partying is that our government structure sucks ass and our culture is obsessed with the individual and with “freedom” to harm others. Can a person override these messages? Yes. They can. But I do think it’s worth gathering up as much empathy and patience as you possibly can— AND TRUST ME, I KNOW WE ARE ALL ON OUR LAST DROP OF PATIENCE—and recognizing that messaging from our state/local/federal governments and from people with power and money has been all over the place. Indoor dining is unsafe but outdoor is ok. Outdoor is unsafe now but malls are still open. Masks are required but these three kinds are actually bad. The messaging has been and remains poor.
Additionally, what you’re getting online is often not the full picture and doesn’t tell you much about someone’s actual safety. Some people are being unsafe constantly—walking around mask-free, raw dogging the world—and they aren’t posting any photos. Other people were unsafe one time and posted about it, but they felt like a baby shower was worth the risk. (I personally don’t agree; I think it’s putting others at risk. I’m with you on this). Other people are taking vacations that might seem unsafe but really were well planned and low-risk. (Driving to a close-by Airbnb/rental house with other people in your pod isn’t all that risky for example).
On top of that, there are people who are truly at the end of their rope emotionally/mentally, who are breaking rules as little as possible, which is still more than you or perhaps I would. For example, I do not do outdoor (or indoor) dining partially because to me it doesn’t seem safe enough and I do not want to put servers/staff at risk. That said, I feel like some people might need outdoor dining right now to stay a little more sane. I can imagine that as a parent right now sitting outside and not having to cook or do dishes feels like a much needed break. My point is this: there may be reasons behind the scenes that you don’t know about for people to be taking certain risks. Maybe you do have all the information in certain scenarios (yeah, going to a massive 100-person party / underground concert right now is just… bad), but remember that that’s not always the case. You might not have all the info.
Additionally, the person doing those actions might feel like they do have all the info but they’ve been told something that is not strictly true. For example, for the first few MONTHS of the pandemic we were all told not to wear masks. Remember? Again, messaging has been murky at best. It takes a lot of time and effort to dig into the science behind what is and is not actually safe / a risk. And even when you are virtually “perfect,” you can still get coronavirus. I have a friend whose entire family was on LOCKDOWN because his grandparent with dementia lived with them. They still don’t know how someone in their family got it, but they assume it was from a grocery store pick up. They hadn’t seen anyone in 10 months. ANYONE.
I want to reiterate that I think there are lots of selfish people out there whose actions are harming others; I would like to yell at all of them individually after I gather a bunch of info about their choices and then I would like to judge them harshly by my own personal moral metrics. But that isn’t a great use of my life. I’m not going to get through to them most likely and my time would be better spent eating Girl Scout cookies or jerking off.
My suggestion to you is this: allow yourself to feel angry/bitter/enraged/resentful. That is part of the grief of this year. Anger and grief go hand and hand a lot more than you might think! Anger and grief are like your two friends who you keep finding out are hooking up again after you thought it was over. Feel your anger! It’s fucked beyond belief to see people around you losing their loved ones, to see health care workers running ragged, to see essential workers risking their lives and to have some people going to parties because they feel like it. That is fucked. I agree with you. It’s fucked to pretend like the rules don’t apply to you because you will (probably) be ok. You can be mad about this. But there are limits to how much this anger will serve you.
For me, I am doing my best to cut people out of my social media (unfollowing/muting) who seem to not care about the rules. I am doing my best to communicate my boundaries to close friends and family members. I am nagging my parents constantly to remember things like “6 feet indoors doesn’t do anything” and “taking your mask off only when you eat is like taking your condom off only when you come” and “rapid testing isn’t always accurate.” I’m being a little annoying to very close people who love me a lot, who care about me and what I say. They are not always listening because it is, at the end of the day, their life and I cannot make anyone be good/better/perfect.
When things become safer, I will likely try not to see people who were flaunting the rules simply for their own personal enjoyment. I do not want people like that in my life (although admittedly I wasn’t super super close to almost anyone like this to begin with). I often think about how I would feel if one of my parents had been killed by the coronavirus—how furious I would be; how I would never speak to people who partied again? And then I apply that feeling to myself anyway because guess what? Someone’s parent did die. Just because it wasn’t my parent doesn’t mean it’s less selfish or hurtful. It’s fair—in fact, good practice in my opinion—to distance yourself from people like that, from people whose base-level values are not in line with yours.
If it’s a work person just try your best to submit to the fact that sometimes you have to work with people with bad values. Obviously you have to be professional. My advice is go for friendly, not friends. Family members and closer friends are harder, but again, I think slowly distancing yourself without being unkind is fair. Their actions have made you feel like your values don’t align in a way that’s a dealbreaker for you. That’s ok. It’s sad but also a reality of life that over time we come to realize that some people can be friendly and nice without being kind or good to others. And sometimes people can be good to you individually without being good to everyone.
But also!!!!! I say this all and I must admit: I am not perfect. I occasionally go (double masked) to the corner store to buy drinks. Do I need drinks? No. I could have water. I returned something (double masked) to Target the other day. (My first time inside a building other than my house or the corner store in months). During the pandemic I got a reconstructive surgery that I had been waiting on for years. I have taken a couple risks that I didn’t have to take, and I assume you have, too. Many of us are doing our best and that includes moments of imperfection.
Don’t spend your time trying to correct other people’s behavior unless it’s someone who you think literally does not understand something and you think you can kindly explain (for example: a child). Create strong boundaries for whom you want around you. You don’t have to keep people in your life who are careless about other people’s lives, but you also don’t have to go moralize to them about why they’re bad or send them a long break up letter. Most likely, they know they’re breaking “rules” and they don’t care; they probably believe they are doing their best or that it’s not that bad. Spend your energy helping people and maintaining your own stringent corona-rules, which you have the luxury to have. Cultivate your gratitude and your boundaries.
Allow yourself and others as much grace as you can muster. Stay friends with people who are doing their best and who care about other people, people whose actions demonstrate that, people who make effort to keep more vulnerable people safe. Cut out people who do not care, who are centering themselves. Be generous in your assumptions, but also be compassionate enough to distance yourself from people who harm others. That’s a fair thing to do when their actions are costing lives.
Keep going. I know it fucking sucks. I know it could be way worse. You’re doing phenomenally.
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.