Personal Guilt and Shaming During Lockdown

Essay by Madi Delay

Abstract: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the general guidelines for health and safety of the public have changed rapidly. Along with that, both internal and external guilt and judgement have blossomed among citizens as we all attempt to navigate the issues we’ve been facing in the past year, lockdown included. In this paper, I’m seeking to examine how this personal and social shame has impacted the continuing pandemic and the changing perspectives we hold of ourselves and each other, especially in our hometowns. There have been a number of studies published about this phenomenon in the past year, as well as a few journal articles which offer potential solutions to this complex social issue. For my own research into the subject, I interviewed a number of people around Purdue’s campus about their opinions and practices during and beyond lockdown in regard to health and safety. These firsthand accounts from West Lafayette residents help put the hypothetical shame and judgement into a real-world context that provides important insight into this modern shame and could aid in resolving the guilt and shaming that so many of us have felt or even partaken in during this pandemic. By moving past blaming each other and ourselves for the plight we’ve found ourselves in, we can be more productive in bringing this era to a close together and returning to the relatively normal lives that we all long for right now.

The ways that life has changed in the past year of a public health crisis are innumerable. However, one common thread is the toll the pandemic has taken on social and personal relations and feelings. While issues like mental and physical health have been more broadly discussed during the COVID-19 pandemic, one aspect that I feel hasn’t been explored in enough detail is the emotions of guilt and shame that have run rampant in response to the rapidly changing CDC guidelines and various misinformation in the media. Not only has there been an uptick in personal feelings of guilt for individual mistakes made, but there has also been a significant increase in public social shaming and judgment between peers, neighbors, friends, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time period rife with controversy and confusion, which have caused us to turn on each other to an extent. Opinions and available information vary widely amongst communities and, as a result, many communities have found each other at odds over other peoples’ perceived mishandling of the pandemic guidelines. The issue with this trend is that rather than accomplishing the goal of ending the pandemic, it serves to prolong it instead by putting everyone on the defensive.

As is pointed out in an article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, while peer pressure can be useful in a public health crisis in terms of encouraging compliance with safety guidelines, it is detrimental when misused on people who make honest mistakes as opposed to willfully going against CDC rules. On a larger scale, when public shaming happens to the wrong people, it can put them and their livelihoods in danger. Gambling with peoples’ lives that way can do serious harm beyond the scope of a simple mistake. Further, there are roots to someone deciding not to comply with health guidelines that should be addressed. Rather than attacking individuals, we need to find the source of the issue. Why did some people willfully decide to ignore proper COVID safety protocols? As one Swiss study suggests, a lack of trust in government authorities and a general lack of morals are good indicators of whether or not someone might comply with pandemic rules now. That being the case, misdirected shame detracts from addressing the real problem keeping the pandemic from ending: people lacking the moral understanding to see the consequences to others that non-compliance causes in our current world.

To approach this issue myself, I spoke with several West Lafayette residents about their personal opinions and feelings, as well as their individual levels of compliance with the pandemic. All participants were 18-22 and Purdue students currently who have stayed around Lafayette throughout the pandemic. The results reflected many of the same findings from my research. As younger people attending college, many of the participants admitted to knowingly defying COVID guidelines during lockdown and after. While most did express guilt over it, a few participants expressed the opposite: feeling that COVID guidelines have actually been too strict. Participants were also asked about their perspectives on how their peers, friends, and family have responded to the pandemic. The results of this line of questioning were much more distinct in that participants had stronger opinions about how others have behaved in the past year.

Many participants felt that other people have been more irresponsible than others in terms of mask-wearing, social distancing, and self-isolating. Some participants had the opposite to say, however, as they felt that their friends and peers had been too stingy about the rules throughout the course of the pandemic. Overall, my research exemplified the findings of current studies of this phenomenon. Amongst young people, an apathy toward the reality of the pandemic is certainly present. Simultaneously, people expect absolute perfection out of others despite their own mistakes this year. This serves to make the overall point that the issue isn’t individually between each other, but rather a broader lack of trust and understanding that has put us in the position to remain in the pandemic this long.

Some options do exist already for solving this overarching issue in order to move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moira Haller et. al. offered trauma-related guilt reduction therapy as a viable option for treating some of these uncomfortable emotions that have been riled up by the volatility of the pandemic. This intervention is short-term and teaches people how to work through their guilt and shame in a manageable way. While this treatment may be the proper solution for some cases, I posit that a more effective management for these emotions would be to broaden the public’s understanding of where those emotions come from and why. If we can understand that our fight is not with each other but with the systems in place that feed that divisiveness that we’ve seen so much of during COVID-19


Duong, Diana. “Does Shaming Have a Place in Public Health?” Canadian Medical Association Journal 193, no. 2 (2021). doi:10.1503/cmaj.1095910.

Haller, Moira, Sonya B. Norman, Brittany C. Davis, Christy Capone, Kendall Browne, and Carolyn B. Allard. “A Model for Treating COVID-19–related Guilt, Shame, and Moral Injury.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 12, no. S1 (2020). doi:10.1037/tra0000742.

Nivette, Amy, Denis Ribeaud, Aja Murray, Annekatrin Steinhoff, Laura Bechtiger, Urs Hepp, Lilly Shanahan, and Manuel Eisner. “Non-compliance with COVID-19-related Public Health Measures among Young Adults in Switzerland: Insights from a Longitudinal Cohort Study.” Social Science & Medicine 268 (2021): 113370. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113370.

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