Opinion

Please Don’t Tell Me ‘It’s Not Covid’ While Coughing in My Face

“Don’t worry!” you reassure me cheerily between coughs, removing your mask to release a particularly phlegmy one. “It’s not Covid!”

To which I say, with tenderness and concern, while also trying not to inhale: Nope.

This holiday season, the fear of missing out is particularly acute, and everyone’s eager to step out for a smidge of sparkle and cheer. But even if you’re reasonably sure your chest cold, stomach bug or swollen sinuses are not coronavirus-related, I’m going to ask that you step away from the mulled cider until you are healthy.

I get it! We’ve been in this pandemic for what feels like a lifetime, and the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant has thrown many of us off balance. I recently watched an adult friend dissolve into tears upon realizing she had missed a 3-year-old’s birthday celebration because she had the time wrong. That’s right, a 3-year-old’s birthday party. At a park. We are languishing, and it makes us want to gather together, even if it means we need to put on real pants again.

But please, if you’re sick, don’t.

Even if it’s not Covid, it’s never a good look — especially in flu season — to show up resembling an extra from “Contagion.” At the risk of being a Grinch, I’d rather not catch your head cold or stomach flu, thank you.

In 2021, health feels like a greater, and perhaps more fragile, gift than ever before — which means that if you’re feeling unwell, the best present you can give might be sparing others your presence.

If you’re worried that being a no-show is rude, don’t be, says Lizzie Post, a professional polite person — the great-great-granddaughter of the etiquette advice columnist Emily Post, as well as a co-host of the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast and a co-president of the Emily Post Institute, which offers advice and training on good manners.

“From a social perspective, canceling because you are sick has always been a thoughtful and considerate thing to do,” Ms. Post says. “That’s just always been true.”

Ms. Post acknowledges that a runny nose can be a symptom of allergies or other noncontagious circumstances. When that’s the case and you’ve fully ruled out Covid with testing, she says, it’s polite to proactively tell a companion or a co-worker exactly why you’re sniffling. “Transparency is really a part of politeness today when it comes to our health and well-being,” she says. In other words, speak up and don’t put others in the awkward position of having to ask about your symptoms. And, of course, if you’re feeling unsure about whether to attend a gathering, discuss the situation with your host.

The same principle of transparency applies to parents socializing with babies or children — especially those too young to be vaccinated. A friend and I recently rescheduled a play date twice: First her baby was congested, then mine had a cough. We spoke about it both times and mutually decided to postpone. I was disappointed, but watching my 1-year-old chew on toys with a stuffy-nosed playmate would have been unnecessarily stressful.

Jim Thomas, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, has researched many countries’ approaches to public health and found himself particularly moved by New Zealand’s.

“They include as one of their principles neighborliness,” Dr. Thomas says, adding that the public health concept came from the country’s Indigenous Maori culture. “Among the Maori, they consider others more important than themselves. So with that kind of a perspective, I would take precautions with masks or even being with you, out of concern for you. Because I want you to be as healthy as possible.”

In the United States, Dr. Thomas says, it can feel as though the reverse is true. “It’s like, ‘How dare you step on my liberties! I am going to do what I want because this is a free country,’” he says.

Another very American tendency — the valorization of overwork — may have led to our habit of showing up at our workplaces with coughs and colds. No doubt, Americans owe some of this working-while-sick tendency to a lack of federally mandated paid leave, which leaves many employees facing significant economic hardship if a cough keeps them home from work. But even among those with access to paid sick leave, there’s often a martyrish compulsion to show up for the sake of showing up — a scourge known as presenteeism that we should leave firmly in 2019.

Perhaps instead we can integrate another concept, Dr. Thomas suggests: interdependence. “Interdependence is not quite as warm and fuzzy as neighborliness. It’s more biological — that what happens in one person has an effect on other people,” he says. “One person’s infection is another person’s exposure.”

Seen through that lens, the decision to attend a gathering while unwell looks rather narcissistic. It says to your fellow attendees, “I know I risked your health by turning up here, but isn’t my presence worth it?” Especially for those of us with vulnerable family members or friends, the answer is likely to be a resounding no, even if your anecdotes are dazzling and your gingersnaps are delicious.

This calculus of the risks versus rewards of socializing in a pandemic can vary from person to person, Dr. Thomas points out. Someone living with a senior parent, unvaccinated young children or an immune-compromised partner may be more wary of exposure — and perhaps less hungry for social interaction — than a single person.

That calculus can be excruciating when people feel lonely and want to see loved ones and friends during the holiday season.

But no party is worth risking passing on a deadly disease, Dr. Thomas says: “It’s unethical. It’s unthoughtful, and it’s selfish.”

Jenni Avins (@jenniavins) is a Los Angeles-based journalist who writes about culture and lifestyle.

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