Public Shame, Social Stigma, And The Coronavirus : Rough Translation Public shame is a powerful tool. But how useful is it when trying to curb a global pandemic? Shaming stories from South Korean chat rooms, a Pakistani street corner, and a Brooklyn grocery store.

The Coronavirus Guilt Trip

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All righty. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. And today's story begins with a cat.


ELIZABETH SENJA SPACKMAN: But she's a cat with a really bad habit. She eats string.


WARNER: This is my friend Elizabeth Senja Spackman, a playwright and professor in New York City. The cat was dumped on her by a roommate who fled town. The cat's name is Indiana.



SPACKMAN: And our solution to get her to not eat string is to let her have as much dry food as she wants. I've never thought of myself particularly as a cat person. I like them. But I have been so grateful to have another creature in the house with me, especially when I was sick.

WARNER: When Elizabeth got COVID-19 in mid-March and she could gasp for breath just from lying on the couch, the obligation of having to get up and feed Indy became a kind of comfort. Elizabeth couldn't leave her apartment, so she ordered cat food online. But cat food was one of the things that Americans were hoarding. And in the nights between the days of waiting for that order to arrive, she'd have stress dreams.


SPACKMAN: I think the equivalent of, like, showing up naked dreams, but in my dreams, I show up, and I have forgotten my mask. And I'm breathing on people, and they're getting sick. It was mortifying to me. I don't want to get anybody sick with this. It's a horrible feeling, that you could be a vector for this miserable thing.

So I guess I was in my third week of being sick.

WARNER: The cat food order had still not arrived.

SPACKMAN: It was getting dark, and I thought I had another bag of dry cat food. And we were out.


WARNER: The CDC, if you're curious, says that people can stop self-isolating 72 hours after having no fever. And her fever had abated. But other countries use different guidelines, and Elizabeth didn't have a test to know if she was still contagious. So she puts on fresh clothes and an N95 mask, and then washes her hands again and grabs a packet of wipes to disinfect every door handle she passes. Then she goes outside to the bodega.


WARNER: And wait, so this is, like, your first foray out into the world?

SPACKMAN: (Laughter) Yeah.


SPACKMAN: It's been me and the cat. When I first walked into the bodega across the street, I really panicked. I was just like, there's too many people in here. It's too small. I can't find anything.

WARNER: She races back to the sidewalk empty-handed.

SPACKMAN: And I'm like, OK, I'm going to - I'll walk all the way to Safehow (ph).

WARNER: The grocery store.

SPACKMAN: It's normally, like, not far at all. I just don't know how far I can go.

WARNER: She's been holed up in her apartment for the last three weeks, weeks in which New York City has really changed.

SPACKMAN: I don't know anything about shopping in this new world because I've gotten grocery delivery. And I don't know, like, how do stores have policies? Like, what are the new customs?

WARNER: At the grocery store, she finds out the employees are wearing masks, but most shoppers are still not. So keeping her distance from fellow shoppers, it's like a game of dodging, weaving.

SPACKMAN: It did sort of feel like floor is lava (laughter). And, like, I wanted to tell people, like, I'm trying to take care of all of you, but I need your cooperation.

WARNER: Finally she obtains the cat food, makes it to the cashier line and feels something warm and wet on her leg.

SPACKMAN: And I look down, and there's this Shiba Inu.

WARNER: It's a dog.

SPACKMAN: Right. There's a dog poking my leg.

WARNER: And the dog is attached to a woman.

SPACKMAN: She is in athleisure clothes, and I guess she's in her 20s.

WARNER: And Elizabeth is trying to figure out can dogs pass it on, even as she's trying to get the woman's attention.

SPACKMAN: And she is paying no attention to her dog because she's chatting with the guys behind her who are both - they really seem kind of like bros, also in their 20s. They're buying beer and paper towels. And the bros are having this loud conversation about how their friend was paranoid and wouldn't leave the house without a mask. And, I mean, they can see that I'm in front of them in line wearing a mask, so I assume that they were including me in the, like, paranoid people. I want to say something to them, but then I also really don't want to engage this conversation. But then I feel a breath on the back of my neck, and I'm like, that doesn't make sense. The dog is not that big.

WARNER: (Laughter).

SPACKMAN: And I turn my head, and as the line had turned the corner, this woman had come and stood so close to me that I could feel her breathing on my neck. And I tried to give her, like, the meanest glare (laughter), but I don't know how to project that yet (laughter) with just the top half of my face.

WARNER: Elizabeth goes from feeling shame to trying to convey shame, but no one seems to be noticing.

SPACKMAN: I felt amazingly invisible to these people. And the guys are still having their loud conversation about beer and how they're invincible. And I have this moment where I just kind of want to rip off my mask and tell them that I have corona and breathe on them.

WARNER: (Laughter).

SPACKMAN: But I would not, and I did not (laughter).

WARNER: And why does it involve ripping off your mask? Like, why not just say, I have corona?

SPACKMAN: I mean, maybe partly it's just that I'm originally from Minnesota, and we are so compulsively polite. But I didn't want to shame them, but I really did want them to take this seriously.

WARNER: What do you mean you didn't want to shame them?


SPACKMAN: I don't think you get people to change behavior by shaming them publicly, but I do wish I had spoken up.


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. At this point in the pandemic, I find myself paying a lot more attention to how people around me are behaving. Are they standing too close? Is that bandana tight enough around their nostrils? Should I say something, and what would I say? Even with these masks on our faces, we have our noses a lot more in each other's business. So is that scrutiny the new normal?


WARNER: Today - two stories about public shame, how it's used and who's using it. We look at shame that is very high tech and some old-school ridicule. And we ask, is it working? And how far does it get you? ROUGH TRANSLATION back after this break.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. Of the 17 correspondents we have around the world who are now hunkering down under quarantine and watching fellow expats flee to their home countries, it seems that our own Anthony Kuhn may have it the easiest.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, let's put it this way - of all the places an American correspondent could be reporting from, I think we feel safest being in South Korea.

WARNER: Anthony is based in South Korea where there have not been the lockdowns that we see in China or the United States.

KUHN: Even at the height of the epidemic, not even the epicenter was locked down.

WARNER: One reason for this is testing. And this part of the story you may already know. South Korea's testing was early and widespread. But there is another piece of the South Korean strategy that is just as important and maybe even more relevant to why people are still free to move. For Anthony, this part of the strategy has a particular sound...


WARNER: ...On his phone.


WARNER: Now, we can't legally play you the sound because this is not an emergency, but Anthony gets these on his phone all the time.


KUHN: It's an electronic sound, but there's something to me that's very menacing about them.

WARNER: Do you have one on your phone right now?

KUHN: Yeah. The last one I got was, like, four hours ago, and it says that anyone who's been to Jack's Bar, which is a couple of subway stops away from me, anyone who's been there in the past few weeks needs to self-isolate. And if they show symptoms, then they need to go get tested for the disease.

WARNER: This isn't a warning that comes through an app. It's more like hurricane warnings or an Amber Alert that comes uninvited on our phones. Anthony hasn't signed up to receive these warnings. The government knows that he lives within a close radius of Jack's Bar.

KUHN: On average, I get about, say, four to six of these emergency alerts a day. I click on a link in that emergency alert, and it takes me to my district government site.

WARNER: Each case of COVID-19 in Anthony's district is assigned a number.

KUHN: And this was about case No. 15. OK. So I go look up patient 15. Patient 15 is a Korean national female in her 20s, and she works at this place called Jack's Bar in Itaewon. She goes to work at about 5 in the afternoon. She gets off at about 3 or 4 in the morning. So on this website on the government website, you can see that she's been tracked from these data points. We see her going to markets, into drugstores, into hospitals.

WARNER: You see her trail.

KUHN: Yeah. We know when she walks. We know when she drives. We know when she's wearing a mask or not.

WARNER: Wait. You know when she's wearing a mask or not?

KUHN: Yeah. OK. Some of this they get from interviewing her. Some of this they get from surveillance camera footage. So we know that, for example, on the 27 of March, she got off work a few hours early because she was feeling aches and pains.

WARNER: So she feels sick enough to leave work early on March 27, but she doesn't get tested.

KUHN: On March 30, she goes up to a pork restaurant just up the street from my apartment, and she eats there from 6 p.m. to 6:50 p.m.

WARNER: On April 3, she goes and gets tested.

KUHN: The next day, the results come back. She's positive. That afternoon, she goes straight into quarantine. And then this afternoon, four hours ago, I get this message saying if I've been in Jack's - Jack's Bar in Itaewon - then I need to self-isolate. So that's how it works.

WARNER: Do you know her name?


WARNER: But, really, how many bartenders at Jack's Bar are women in their 20s living in that particular district and working that particular shift. We're not told her name, but people talk. Her neighbors can figure it out. And the details we know about her, they get pretty personal.

KUHN: We know that at a certain time, she went to stay with an acquaintance nearby. That may set people speculating about who that acquaintance was.

WARNER: People will screenshot this info off of the government site and then repost it with commentary, like who was that acquaintance? How does she know that person? And why did she wait a week after symptoms to get tested?

KUHN: Most of these comments seem to be posted on online forums in a very popular portal called Naver.

WARNER: Naver - it's like the Google of South Korea. It's also like Reddit.

KUHN: And this is often used to stigmatize people, saying why were you out there when you should have been staying at home?

WARNER: Kind of like we are now.

KUHN: People storify this information, and they make a narrative out of it. People who are stigmatized say they're made to feel that they are the disease themselves. And even after they get better, they're still shunned by society. And if the stigma is worse than the disease itself, then people are not going to want to get tested. They may hide their symptoms. And they may get more people sick. So it's something that the government takes very seriously. They've instructed the public to be sympathetic and not discriminate towards victims.

WARNER: But how does it keep me safe? How does it help me avoid the virus to know that patient 15 is in her 20s or to know that she is a she? And if the government really does not want people commenting on the details of people's lives and their choices, then why are they exposing all of these tidbits to make a story out of? Well, Anthony says to understand why the government publicizes so much personal data, you have to go back five years to another contagious respiratory virus.


RENEE MONTAGNE: The dangerous respiratory disease known as MERS continues spreading in South Korea.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The outbreak has sparked fear across the country and generated anger...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: MERS cases more than doubled in a week.


ARI SHAPIRO: Four people have now died from the virus and more than 40...

MONTAGNE: The disease has now killed seven people and infected nearly a hundred. And in the scramble...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: People are now quarantined...


MONTAGNE: And more than 2,000 schools are closed.

WARNER: South Korea had the biggest MERS outbreak in Asia.

KUHN: And once cases started to multiply, the government's response was seen to be vastly inadequate.

WARNER: People wanted to know the names of the hospitals where MERS patients were being treated, and the government at that time, in 2015, said no. That's private.

KUHN: That's correct. Doctors or hospitals might refuse to treat patients with MERS symptoms because they fear that the information might leak out, and then their hospitals might be shunned by the public. The topic became very hot in the news. And also, opinion polls started to come out. One of them showed that 86% of respondents wanted these hospitals identified.

WARNER: Eighty-six percent - that is a huge demand.

KUHN: And that demand was met by netizens who basically crowdsourced information on these hospitals and put together a website map with the locations of the hospitals.

WARNER: And Anthony says this crowdsourcing site, it was pretty accurate, but it was also kind of mean. People would accuse a hospital of keeping MERS patients, and then other people would rush to deny those same rumors.

KUHN: Yeah. And after about a week, they decided to release the information. So they reformed their whole system - their government bureaucracy, their health care system - to give authorities the power to use cell phone data, credit card records and surveillance camera footage to track the route of infections.


WARNER: So if you remember patient 15, the bartender at Jack's Bar, the reason we all can follow her movements and her choices like a fluorescent dye tracking a cell through the body is because of a lesson the government learned fighting MERS. But why do I need to know that patient 15 is in her 20s, or that she's a she? Why do I need to create that story? Anthony says that these stories actually help the warning stick. And they encourage people to share stories of their own, like, oh, I know that bartender. She was talking to my friend. And then I maybe call that friend, and the friend gets tested. The more they tell me, the safer I feel and the more I am willing to trust the government's directives.

We think of shame as a tool of enforcement. But Anthony says that shame around the coronavirus in South Korea is like the byproduct of a system that is meant to foster trust and community and mutual compliance with the rules.

KUHN: Yeah. I think they're proud of the fact that they've been able to achieve what they've done without the use of any lockdowns. And they are plugging the South Korean model very hard. The World Health Organization chief has invited President Moon Jae-in to give the keynote speech at the World Health Assembly. Officials have been touting their experience in media interviews, and the things they've done are being copied.

WARNER: The world has already copied a lot from South Korea, like drive-through testing sites. And in the U.S. this past week, Apple and Google announced that they're developing a contact-tracing technology. It'll help us know if we were near a potentially infected person.

Now, unlike the South Korean model, you won't know anything about that person, but it's not hard to imagine what happened in South Korea happening in the United States - people demanding more information. And if the government doesn't tell them, they might try to deduce it themselves - to take this data about when you might have been exposed and figure out more about who might have exposed you to it.

This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. A lot of countries, of course, don't have the technological capacity to monitor people in the way that South Korea has.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: No one follows us here with our data to check on the coronavirus. No one's looking at my phone to check my movements to see whether I'm obeying a curfew.

WARNER: Diaa Hadid is the NPR correspondent in Pakistan, which has been on lockdown - no non-essential movements allowed. But how do you keep everyone following the rules?

HADID: I can leave my house, get in my car, drive down a highway, and as long as I'm not leaving the city limits, I will largely be left alone.

WARNER: And in the absence of technological surveillance, what Diaa has seen is old-fashioned shame tactics, which, if you're wealthy, looks like the police basically rolling up and yelling at you.

HADID: Over the loudspeakers, like, you're acting like it's normal. You're not taking this seriously. There's a pandemic. It will kill you. And if you die, they're going to wrap you in plastic and roll you into a ditch, and there'll be no one to pray for you. So stand apart. Stand apart.

WARNER: But if you're poor, the same police tactics feel much more aggressive.

HADID: Typically they were stopping buses, and they'd make all the men get out. And they'd have to crouch by the road and stick their hands under their legs. And it looks like they're assuming a chicken pose. And they'd have to sit like that for a long time.

WARNER: And what's the purpose of that move?

HADID: Well, it's what you do to anyone when you're trying to humiliate them, whether it's a school kid or a laborer who's, like, trying to sneak home on a bus.

WARNER: Were those same tactics working? Well, for a few weeks, anyway, Islamabad became a ghost town - maybe less because of the harassment than there were just no more jobs for those laborers to take the bus to. Everything had been closed. But then Diaa noticed something curious.

HADID: You know, with the shutdown, they sort of disappeared from the streets. But then I began noticing they were actually sort of popping back up. And they're not there to work because there is no work.

WARNER: Those laborers were gathering in their usual spots, though the market was closed.


HADID: Do you want to sanitize?

SATAR, BYLINE: I have already used.

HADID: We drove - Satar (ph), my colleague and I, we drove to the Jinnah market. And it's a place where, before the virus, dozens of laborers and traders would gather. And they'd hold their tools so you knew what they did. So, you know, painters would sit with a paintbrush and a tin of paint.


HADID: OK. Look at all these guys.

WARNER: A landscaper carries a shovel.

HADID: Yes. It's a visual signal of what this person can do.

WARNER: But why were they bringing their tools now when there were no jobs to join? Diaa walks up with her hand sanitizer and her boom pole for her mic so she can keep the 6-foot distance. Immediately, a crowd surrounds her.

HADID: This crowd of laborers stood around us, and this is really typical in Pakistan. One person will speak, and a crowd will sort of gather. But they also stood at this respectful distance from us because they're aware that a rich person would care about social distancing.

If you want to record, you can come closer. That's OK. It's OK.

WARNER: You mean they're standing close to each other but far from you.

HADID: Yes. Yeah. If you had taken a bird's eye picture, it would have been I was standing in the middle, and Satar was standing about 6 feet to my left. And the person we were interviewing was between us both at a distance, literally in a triangle formation, and then a big circle of people around us at about a 6 feet distance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: The men here tell her that even to stand here with their tools, they have to evade the police.

HADID: They hide and then they wait for the police to pass. And sometimes they get caught and sometimes they get scolded. Don't you know there's a pandemic? Get off the street. Socially distance. Stand away from the other person. What are you doing here? Go back home. Don't you know there's a disease? Of course, they know there's a disease.

WARNER: So the police are acting like they don't know the rules, but the way they're keeping their distance from you, it sounds like they do know the rules. They just don't feel like it applies to them.

HADID: It tells you something about the privilege embedded in the idea of staying home and socially isolating. A lot of the laborers who are sitting out in the streets live, you know, often nine to 10 people in a room in a crowded house in a crowded slum on a crowded street. Some of these alleys, they're so narrow that you can stretch out both arms and, like, touch houses on either side. And it's not like staying home is any safer than being out on the street. And so all these people are standing. And then there's one fellow and he's, like, sitting on the curb. And the way he gets our attention is by shouting in English.

WARNER: The tubby guy in grimy clothes shouts out to them from the curb.

IBRAHIM: (Unintelligible) sent into your homes.

HADID: One second, one second.

Which does get our attention. We're not used to laborers speaking to us in English. And he really won the respect, you could see, of the laborers around him because he was speaking this language. So everyone just sort of, like, quieted down to let him speak.

OK, sir, OK, sir. Come. Stand with the microphone. What's your name?

IBRAHIM: My name is Ibrahim (ph).

HADID: Ibrahim is 48 years old, and he's a mason.

IBRAHIM: When corona started, we cannot earn our money honestly.

WARNER: They're not here for work. They're here for charity.

IBRAHIM: Nowadays, we are waiting for the money-having people, the rich people who come here and they bring some food for these neighbor people.

HADID: Wow. Wow.

What I realized was going on is that a lot of these tradees (ph) were standing with their tools as a signal to passersby that they weren't just professional beggars, that they were, like, hard-on-their-luck laborers, and they needed help.

That's hard.

IBRAHIM: Hard - too much hard.

WARNER: These tools that before the pandemic signaled the work they could do, now they were new a signal of the jobs they were banned from doing.

IBRAHIM: Yes. Before these conditions, they were not waiting for other people money. They were earning with their hands - becoming in people's eyes as beggars.

HADID: And he kept saying, like, we feel ashamed. We're not beggars. And I hadn't even considered that aspect of it of, like, the shame that people must feel that, you know, they used to take pride in their ability to work and provide for their families and - you know and they've been rendered destitute.

WARNER: Talking to Diaa, I thought back to what Anthony in South Korea told me about patient 15, how she or people like her felt humiliated, like their dignity was taken, but that that public shaming was also part of a tradeoff where everyone agrees to follow the same rules for the common good. In Pakistan, that same balance between shame and community trust seemed to be flipped on its head. Most people in Islamabad live more like Ibrahim does, in close quarters where the rules of social distancing are almost impossible to practice. And this lockdown leaves them with very little feelings of safety but with all of the shame. And so what are they supposed to do?

HADID: Think about this - the first response of Pakistani tradesmen who suddenly found their work dry up was to stand on the street and wait for other people to give them money and food. And you can see in that a shared communal expectation of what should be done in a crisis.

WARNER: The expectation is that even though this lockdown affects us all so differently, we're all in this together, that somehow we'll help each other.

HADID: I'm worried that I sound a bit like Pollyanna here, like, oh, everything will be fine and, you know, let's not worry. No. I mean, a lot of people will suffer.


WARNER: This week, the government announced that it was loosening the lockdown. It would allow Pakistan's construction industry to reopen immediately, along with about a dozen other industries. The prime minister, Imran Khan, explained we are facing corona challenge on one hand; on the other, we have hunger.


WARNER: Today's show is produced by Jess Jiang, with help from Derek Arthur. Our editor was Lu Olkowski. Thanks also to Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov. Didi Schanche is NPR's chief international editor. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. John Ellis composed our theme music, additional Music from Blue Dot Sessions and mastering by Isaac Rodriguez.


WARNER: If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, tell a friend about the show and tell us about your ROUGH TRANSLATION moments. You can email us at or find us on Twitter - @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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