Death on Your Conscience: How Systemic Shame Poisoned the Public Discourse on COVID-19
Throughout 2020, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot emphasized the role irresponsible individuals played in the spread of COVID-19, leveraging shame to downplay the role city policy played in rising case numbers. In Lightfoot’s response, we can see a microcosm of how COVID-19 was bungled by public institutions at just about every level: government officials admonished individual people to do the ‘right thing’: to mask, socially distance, stay at home, get tested, get vaccinated, get boosted and to pivot to online and outdoor gatherings — all while neglecting to provide the financial and logistical resources that would make doing the “right thing” possible.
In early May of 2020, for instance, a crowded house party on the city’s West Side was streamed on Facebook Live. Footage of dozens of teenagers drinking and dancing maskless spread far and wide, provoking international criticism. Lightfoot called a press conference and threatened to arrest anyone found violating pandemic restrictions.[i]
“Don’t make us treat you like a criminal,” Lightfoot stated, “but if you act like a criminal and you violate the law and you refuse to do what is necessary to save lives in this city during a pandemic we will take you to jail, period.”
Lightfoot’s message could not be more clear. If you don’t strictly socially distance, you’re a criminal who deserves to be locked up. Particularly if you are young, Black, and poor. Never mind that Chicago’s correctional system was one of the largest sites of COVID outbreak in the entire country at that time,[ii] and throwing more people into jail would only worsen the problem. People who do the ‘wrong things’ deserve to be punished, no matter how many other people suffer in the process.
Two weeks later, and with COVID rates at critical levels,[iii] Lightfoot announced a plan to reopen indoor dining in restaurants.[iv] Two weeks after that decision, positive cases were predictably on the rise,[v] but the mayor had little to say about what role her reopening had played. Instead, Lightfoot continually focused on shaming Black youth on the South and West sides of the city, for not following safety guidelines perfectly.[vi]