With quarantine, it’s intensified even more. “The fear that you might infect someone else is a tremendous burden,” Golub said, one that requires you to keep careful track of all your behaviors in the midst of the illness you’re already going through. But, she added, even if you take that fear away, simply having what’s considered a scary contagious disease is enough to mess with your sense of self. “The guilt and shame that comes from knowing you ‘are infectious,’ even if you take all steps to protect others around you, can be itself damaging to identity,” she explained via email. “The experience of being perceived as (and treated as) a potential vector of disease can rob individuals of their sense of self or self-worth and reduce them to their illness.”
Although we know, intellectually, that “the person is not the disease,” emotionally, we still make that connection, Golub said. Despite all we know about germ theory and the way disease is spread, “there is a strong pull toward believing that catching a contagious illness is in some way a moral failing.”
People who are quarantined—or even those who are simply identified as contagious—are the recipient of that stigma. Stuck in a room so they can’t hurt others, they are constantly reminded. At Mount Sinai, all the medical staff, I noticed, wore meters around their necks that looked like Geiger counters. I asked about them right away, fascinated but horrified. The meter kept track of how much radioactive contamination a given worker received from me each day, one doctor explained. It quantified how much damage my own body had potentially done to theirs. If, at the end of a shift, a worker’s numbers were too high, they had to take a break from quarantine duty.