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January 21, 2021

'Covid camouflagers': Why some people hide their diagnosis 'like it's a deep, dark secret'

Daily Briefing

    Americans deal with their Covid-19 diagnoses in unique ways, and some people opt to hide their illness "like it's a deep, dark secret," The Atlantic's Saahil Desai writes. Desai interviewed three so-called "Covid camouflagers" on their motivations and experiences. Here's what he discovered.

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    As millions of Americans have contracted the novel coronavirus, "we've seen the full kaleidoscope of ways people react and cope with illness," Desai writes, ranging from those who have "dutifully rung up contract tracers and locked themselves up in total isolation" to others who have—despite testing positive—continued to go to work or gone ahead with "maskless" weddings.

    But there's one particularly "curious response," he writes: People who treat their diagnosis like a secret, opting "not to tell their closest relatives—or their friends, or anyone at all—that they are sick in the first place." And while it's "impossible to speculate about just how many Covid camouflagers are out there," Desai did manage to track down and talk to three of them, "all under the condition of anonymity, to suss out why they made the call to hide a life-threatening illness from the people who most value their life."

    The secret lives of 'Covid camouflagers'

    Of the three people he spoke with, one was a father in Philadelphia who kept his diagnosis from his 12-year-old son because he didn't want him to tell his friends. Another was an "anguished health care worker in New York" who hid her diagnosis from her mother and grandmother at least in part because her mother "blam[es] the pandemic on 5G towers and chemists," and so she didn't want to "add to her hysteria."

    But the "grandest coronavirus cover-up" Desai heard involved a 60-year-old flight attendant identified by her first name only—Michelle—whose bout with Covid-19 in March nearly put her in the hospital. And even now that she's mostly recovered, no one but her boyfriend, a cousin, and one friend is aware that she ever got sick in the first place, Desai writes.

    According to Desai, Michelle during her conversations with him made clear that before she fell ill with Covid-19, she'd never been one to keep secrets from her family—in fact, she lives just down the street from her parents, for whom she serves as a caretaker. However, after she caught Covid-19 following a "packed flight from Tel Aviv to the United States," she immediately told her boyfriend she would have to self-isolate for a while and, eventually, let a friend and cousin know what had happened.

    But "[e]ven in telling one person," Michelle told Desai, "there was so much judgment about everything" she did—even just walking out to her mailbox once she started to feel better—despite the fact that she followed her doctor's every recommendation. As Desai put it, Michelle was so "haunted by the shame, she completely shut down," refraining even from telling her parents lest she worry them about potentially losing her. So, Michelle dodged phone calls, feigned work assignments, and to this day has no plans to let them know she's fallen ill—even though she's still dealing with fallout from the illness, including severe migraines, hair loss, and more.

    Why the instinct to lie?

    "No one hides an illness because they enjoy unleashing a cascade of lies," Desai writes. Rather, citing Meghan Moran, a health communications scholar at Johns Hopkins University, Desai explains that people refrain from disclosing their illness as an act of kindness, or a desire to maintain control over the impression we give others. "But secrecy can also be motivated by one of the deepest-rooted myths around," Desai adds: "that health is a sign of virtue, and infection a sign of sin."

    He cites Julia Marus, a Harvard University epidemiologist, who explained, "It's not surprising that people are scared of judgment when we've been telling them for months on end that if they take any risks, they are selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. So of course when people test positive, their first reaction is, What did I do wrong?"

    But as Desai points out, while certain "people really have acted pretty boneheadedly during all of this," the real reason America "has bungled its pandemic response" isn't because of individual risktakers. Instead he points to the government's failure to "proffer Americans the very things they need most in a moment like this: clear messaging on how to stay safe, and basic resources that will help them do so." And as a result of "that vacuum," Desai writes, "Americans have only one thing left to protect themselves: personal responsibility."

    As John Pachankis, a public health professor who heads up Yale University's LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative, explained, people are for the most part "'making rational decisions with the information they have,'" and are opting to conceal their diagnoses after significant consideration and thought. Ultimately, they decide the cost of sharing their diagnosis is not worth it—a response that Pachankis said is reminiscent "of an entirely different phenomenon: staying in the closet."

    But "the deception is never easy," Desai writes. He points to Michelle as an example, who in order to evade her parents' growing suspicions and concerns, has "simply started spending less time … with her family to escape from it all" (Desai, The Atlantic, 1/17).

    Want to improve your Covid-19 messaging?

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    Learn about four communication archetypes you can use to "make the case" for a safe re-opening in your community—and make sure your message cuts through the noise.

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