Nova Scotia

As COVID-19 pandemic drags on, ire shifts toward the unvaccinated

For almost two years, Dalhousie University professor Robert Huish has studied shaming amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but he's noticed a big difference for who's getting blamed during Omicron: the unvaccinated.

Researchers have studied 'rolling stigma' amid the pandemic, and now the unvaccinated are getting blamed

Demonstrators protest COVID-19 restrictions outside of Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Two years into the pandemic, the unvaccinated are taking the brunt of the blame for fuelling the global ordeal, a shift from earlier days when other groups, including people of Asian descent, university students and tourists, were targeted, says a Dalhousie University professor studying shaming amid COVID-19.

Robert Huish, whose research includes global health and COVID-19 stigma, said as the coronavirus evolved, so too did the blame associated with the pandemic — something he calls "rolling stigma." 

The emergence of the Omicron variant marked another shift in ire.

"Whereas in previous waves of rolling stigma, it was often assumed that somebody behaved badly because of their identity or because of their job ... now, blame is associated with a decision or an action [to not get vaccinated]," said Huish, who is part of a team conducting research in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Unvaccinated people judged harshly

In Nova Scotia, unvaccinated people are about 3.5 to four times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than someone with two doses of vaccine. That is based on average hospitalizations since the province started releasing the daily hospitalization numbers by vaccine status on Jan. 4.

To that end, the province has instituted a proof-of-vaccination system for non-essential activities and mandatory vaccinations for public sector workers in an effort to get more people to roll up their sleeves for the shot.

Dalhousie University professor Robert Huish has studied stigmatization throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Huish said researchers have found that people who are fully vaccinated, follow public health measures and still test positive for COVID-19 are met with sympathy.

This is what Owen Johnstone from Dartmouth, N.S., experienced.

Johnstone is triple vaccinated and said he limited his social contacts throughout the pandemic. When he recently contracted COVID-19, he decided to post about his positive diagnosis on social media.

"It would maybe take away that fear of telling people, 'I have COVID, I would like support, I would like love,'" he said.

Johnstone said the response was very positive, with people offering to pick up food for him and checking in on him regularly — actions he said helped deal with the mental health struggles he experienced during self-isolation.

On the contrary, in cases where unvaccinated people contract COVID-19, Huish said condemnation is usually swift.

"It's like, 'Oh, your time's up. Told you so,'" he said.

Unlike other groups that have been unfairly targeted for creating or prolonging the pandemic, Huish said there is some logic in pointing fingers at the unvaccinated, noting they "allow the virus to spread a lot more easily."

But the professor said he's worried about a "rigid class divide within society" among those who are vaccinated and those who aren't — long after the pandemic ends.

"I don't see workplaces being the same after this," he said. "I don't see families and communities being as trusting of each other, knowing that there are some who chose to avoid following these public health measures knowing what the consequences were."

Reducing stigmatization

Recovering from COVID-19 at home, Johnstone said he's given a lot of thought to stigmatization throughout the pandemic and sees the benefit of supporting people who have opposing views on vaccination, instead of responding with anger.

"I think by all of us kind of supporting and talking to these people, they've been able to change their minds and make decisions that are more informed themselves," he said.

Owen Johnstone from Dartmouth, N.S., recently contracted COVID-19. Fully vaccinated, he posted about his diagnosis on social media in the hopes that it normalizes the stigma of contracting the coronavirus. (Submitted by Owen Johnstone)

Johnstone said he knows some people who declined to get vaccinated but eventually signed up for the shot. If those people had been shunned for their initial choice, they may have remained unvaccinated, he said.

"I think that they would have just resented their friends and then I think that if they had unfortunately gotten COVID, they wouldn't have had that friend group to support them," he said.

"And I think that would be a real tragedy — even if they stayed unvaccinated — to not be supported."

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