The last three people I know who got COVID most recently all apologized to me after letting me know that they had it. One apologized because our exposure to him might mean that some of us would need to cancel Christmas plans, another apologized because we could no longer see each other in the time that he would be spending in Calgary for holidays. The third apologized because we live together and he’d feel wrong if I ended up with complications because the COVID that he got passed onto me.
While norms around what to do when you have symptoms have certainly changed thanks to COVID, I think that it’s wrong to apologize for catching COVID. You shouldn’t apologize when you have done nothing wrong; getting COVID is not wrong, and therefore you shouldn’t apologize for getting COVID. And though this next conclusion has more nuance, I also think that it’s wrong to expect an apology from someone who passed COVID onto you because you’re expecting something that can’t be given, and because you’re debasing their character by expecting a sham apology. Those two conclusions are what I will be defending below.
You shouldn’t apologize when you have done nothing wrong. For me, apologies must answer three questions: what did you do that was wrong, why did you do it, and how are you changing to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. I apologize when I become aware of wrongdoing on my part and when I’m willing to change. I also apologize to mend wounds and to open up a dialogue with the other person. You can tell when you’re apologizing for reasons other than the selfish one of wanting to feel better yourself when you are open to the other person telling you what other things you should apologize for, and you don’t retort and get defensive in response.
But to apologize in ignorance of or disagreement with the apology is a lie. Everyone has done this at least once – you say sorry because you see that you’ve somehow caused harm, and hope that your apology will make the other person feel better. But apologies like these are lies. You shouldn’t lie when apologizing because it cheapens the apology and every future apology you’ll ever make. Then, when you need to actually apologize, your words won’t be meaningful enough to do so. Another reason to not lie when apologizing is to stave off the contrition vultures. If you apologize to a mob when you’ve done nothing wrong, then every other aggrieved mob will come after you and demand apologies from you, and you’ll be demoralized and ashamed for corrupting your soul and betraying yourself (1, 2, 3). Only apologize when you’ve done something wrong.
Getting COVID is not wrong. Innocence until proven guilty, right? Don’t self-blame unless you’ve done something wrong, and judge yourself the way you’d judge other people. We start with the presumption that it’s not wrong.
One argument for why it’s wrong to get COVID is because you might weigh down the hospital system. Perhaps you’re overweight and diabetic and old. You’re more likely to go to a hospital now so you might prevent others from getting medical help. This argument falls flat when your remember that hospitals should be taking care of citizens, not the other way around. It’s the hospital system (or the government) who is to blame in this situation, not the individual who might need to use it. They’ve had two years to expand the hospital system and haven’t done so. It’s 100% on them. Furthermore, if you’re young, healthy, fit, have great Vitamin D levels, and don’t have co-morbidities, you’re very unlikely to visit the hospital. So this issue doesn’t even apply to you.
Another possible argument for why it’s wrong to get COVID is because you will spread it to other people. This sucks because people who get COVID will then have to cancel the events that they’re attending or hosting, and they’ll have to stay at home for 5-10 days (thank goodness they lowered it from 10 days for asymptomatic cases here in Alberta). But I don’t understand what the alternative could be. Viruses spread! That’s what they do. Humans do not live in a disinfected world where we control everything, and the presumption that we could is arrogant folly. The greater likelihood of sickness spreading is simply the cost that comes from being with other people. I know for sure that COVID is not as deadly for young people as the loss of socialization is, for loneliness is a strong predictor of chronic disease (4). You can’t blame people for the behaviour of viruses.
“But wait!” you say. “What if the person who got COVID was someone who never wore his mask, who never social distanced, who partied all the time, etc”? Well, when it comes to COVID, the societal goal that Canadians were sold, as far as I can tell, was to flatten the curve. It wasn’t to stop the spread of COVID, or to get to COVID zero. It was to slow it down so that hospital capacity wouldn’t be overwhelmed. The area under the curve stays the same, as do the number of deaths. Perhaps you could argue that we were slowing it down until we reached herd immunity, but we now have vaccines that don’t work very well anymore (2 shots of Pfizer or Moderna have 30% immunity, 3 shots have 75%) and I feel that most people for whom COVID would be fatal have now died from it by now. By avoiding COVID, you’re simply delaying the inevitable. Better to get your sickness over and done with right away. Spreading COVID can’t be wrong because you’re otherwise prolonging the pandemic by avoiding the inevitable.
Here’s one counter-argument. People often say “I’m sorry for your loss” to someone grieving after someone died. They’re saying sorry for something they have no control over. Are they lying and debasing their soul too? I think not – they’re simply expressing disappointment over an unfortunate situation, along with some help. Similarly, people who say sorry for catching COVID are not apologizing because they’re expressing contrition, but rather, because they regret the situation.
But on closer examination, the moral context is entirely different. It would be different, perhaps even cruel, for someone to say “I’m sorry for your loss” if they were a potential cause of someone’s death. For example, if the victim died in a car crash where the driver was drunk, the driver couldn’t simply say “I’m sorry for your loss.” He would have to offer an actual apology, even though he could never bring back the person, even though one might not be wanted at all. Similarly, if the moral culpability of a sick person is in doubt when it comes to getting COVID, you shouldn’t apologize in order to avoid suggesting that you’re contrite.
A corollary of this argument is that it’s wrong to ask for or expect an apology from someone who got COVID because you’re asking for something they can’t/shouldn’t give you – the certainty that they’ll be free of sickness. You’re also asking them to lie to you.
So there you have it! Don’t apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong unless you want to lie. Getting or spreading COVID is not wrong because viruses spread, hospitals serve people, and you’re merely delaying the inevitable. Don’t apologize for catching COVID. And don’t ask for an apology either.