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Opinion: I was shamed for being diagnosed with Covid

Amy Donohoe was diagnosed with Covid-19 last month and found that the experience brought with it an unwelcome sense of shame.

Amy Donohoe

EVERY EVENING AFTER work I usually go for a walk. This ritual began back in March. I put my earphones in, turn off my mobile data and walk alongside a line of rush hour traffic – all to purposely avoid seeing those dreaded Covid figures at around 5:30 pm. 

But recently, I was included in the figures. This isn’t a sympathy piece, instead, this is about the guilt and shame that comes with the diagnosis.

I think in Ireland, many people are afraid to get tested because they don’t want others to know they might have it. They wonder what those around them will think. Covid is a killer and we don’t know how to prevent it, other than distancing. But if you don’t get tested because you’re ashamed or it’s an inconvenience, you’re putting yourself and others at risk.

‘Covid positive’

I initially contacted my GP for a Covid-19 test and explained my symptoms; I wasn’t a close contact and initially thought I had tonsillitis and a kidney infection as I had chronic pain in my lower back and my tonsils were swollen. I remember going for a walk before I got tested and I couldn’t breathe, but I thought I was just unfit.

It wasn’t until I lost my sense of taste that I realised it could have been Covid. Even now, almost a month later, I’m still suffering from fatigue and muscle pain, especially in my legs. I sometimes struggle to keep my eyes open during the day, but I am slowly coming back to myself.

When I first got the phone call to say I had tested positive, I burst into tears; I had a busy weekend prior to getting tested, and my initial worry was if I had infected someone – I didn’t even think “where did I get it from?” my primary concern was if I was around any vulnerable people.

I still don’t know where I got the virus from; it was labelled as community transmission. People will speculate, but I can’t point the finger and blame anyone.

I will probably never know where I got the virus, but I made sure to get in touch with all of my close contacts once I was diagnosed. My guess at the time was that one of them had the virus but didn’t show any symptoms, or someone had symptoms, but they were too afraid to get tested. 

I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to inform my close contacts about what they were to do. It took five days for the contact tracing team to get in touch with me.

In the meantime, I was constantly bombarded with texts from friends and family asking things like: “what do I do?” “I can’t get a test until the HSE get in touch with you,”, and “have you given the HSE my contact details yet?” I got those texts more often than I got texts asking was I okay or if I needed anything. 

All of this communication caused me to be stressed and overwhelmed when I should just have been resting. It made me feel at fault considering they were all restricting their movements by cancelling plans and calling in sick to work because of me. 

‘All your fault’

At one stage a sibling of one of my close contacts sent me a Snapchat with her middle finger up and the caption “F**k you Amy, because of you I have to self isolate for 48 hours.” That message was meant to be a joke, but at that stage, I lost the plot.

I am a sensitive person, so maybe it was funny, but I just felt that people were talking about me. Typically, when I text someone unwell, I usually wish them a swift recovery, or I ask them if they need anything. But at that moment, I genuinely felt as if I was hated because I could’ve spread a virus. 

From what I can see, this virus creates a judgemental reaction in society as gossip spreads faster than Covid. Shame comes too.

Imagine contracting Covid and suffering from muscle pain, headaches and breathing issues. Imagine being isolated from your family and friends. Then imagine being stigmatised because you caught a virus that is currently spreading like wildfire.

I was very lucky not to spread the virus to any of my close contacts, although they still had to restrict they movements for 14 days, meanwhile because I tested positive, I only had to self isolate for 10 days.

I’m extra careful now because I don’t know where I got Covid from. I do my grocery shopping online and I write down anyone I come into contact with – in case I ever have to do contact tracing again.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been constantly asked where I got the virus, presumably in order to blame someone or somewhere. The reality is, I can’t pinpoint it; in the same way, I haven’t been able to identify where I got chickenpox when I was six, who I got head lice from when I was four or what lead to be getting a kidney infection last year. We need to stop holding people accountable for a virus that will inevitably spread.

The rumour mill

Some rumours circulating around the time of my diagnosis included one that my nine-year-old brother had the virus and went to school with it – even though my family followed HSE advice once I came back positive.

Another suggested I had gone out drinking the Monday I began self-isolating, apparently, too I had shared a pint with my friend that night – I know I am from Cavan, but I’m really not that stingy with my money.

Please do not shame people for getting sick. Shame can prevent an individual from ringing their GP, taking time off work when they need to and it can really impact someone’s mental health, especially if they’re left with their own thoughts while self-isolating. 

Ireland has been known in the past as the Republic of shame. Things have changed in a lot of ways but we still live in a society where we wonder what the neighbours think; we try to avoid being the ‘talk of the town’ or making a ‘holy show’ of ourselves.

It has been my experience that people will gossip about you if you have Covid. I’m not ashamed to say I had coronavirus, why should I be? I followed Government guidelines, and unfortunately, I still got it.

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Covid is a sickness, and I was sick. It’s normal to get an illness now and then. Some HSE workers have had Covid even though they’re always disinfecting and have proper PPE gear, some Government officials have had it too, even though they’re the ones promoting Covid safety. Even Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock’ has had it even though he is built like a tank.

It’s important to remember that everyone is vulnerable and people of all ages will occasionally get sick. Maybe I did slip up somehow in my exposure to Covid, I really don’t know. I’ve thought long and hard about it. It’s hard to abide by the new normal sometimes, and that’s okay. We shouldn’t seek to attribute blame; instead, we should encourage each other to stay safe and look out for one another. 

Amy Donohoe is from Cavan and is based in Dublin. She is currently a bid writer. She is also a DCU alumnus with a BA in journalism and an MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media and Society.  You can find her on Twitter here

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Amy Donohoe

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