Everyone in the path of the novel coronavirus, which at this point is pretty much all of us, should know by now the best advice to avoid catching this highly communicable bug. Wash your hands frequently, for 20 seconds at a time, and stop touching your face. You should also know what pointless panicky behavior looks like: Wearing a mask when you’re not actually sick and buying up all the toilet paper.
And then there’s one behavior that seems like it might be sensible, but in fact falls under the panicky column. It has nothing to do with actual coronavirus symptoms, and only serves to increase the growing levels of fear and distrust. We speak of sneeze-shaming.
According to the WHO and the CDC, the main symptoms of coronavirus are a fever, a dry cough, and difficulty breathing. Very few of the afflicted — some 5 percent, according to statistics from China — find themselves sneezing. “Runny nose is rarely a component of the illness,” Dr. Marta Feldmesser, chief of medicine of infectious diseases at Lenox Hill Hospital, told the New York Post. “If people start sneezing, that’s not something that should trigger concerns.”
Someone should tell that to the sneeze-shamers, whose overblown reaction in recent days is starting to look a little like this:
There is, of course, a perfectly innocent reason to find yourself sneezing around this time of year. Spring has sprung across much of the U.S., and it’s a particularly bad one for the more than 50 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies. California plants have already begun their annual shedding; as I write this, the pollen count in both the north and south of the state is ranked “medium-high.” Thanks to above-average rainfall and temperatures, meteorologists are forecasting a “long and severe” season for tree, weed, and grass pollen.
The perfect storm of allergy season and coronavirus panic seems almost designed to increase paranoia among a fearful population. “As an allergy sufferer, I can’t deal with the glares,” one sneeze-shamed California friend told me. “It’s frustrating as hell.” Her response breaks down into one of two categories: saying “don’t worry, it’s just allergies” if there are kids present; “resting bitch face” if there aren’t.
Of course, allergy sufferers should still follow good sneeze etiquette. Sneezing into the crook of your elbow is the best way to contain it; sneezing into a disposable tissue is also acceptable. If the sneeze sneaks up on you and you use your hands by accident — well, now you have another good use for all that hand sanitizer you’re carrying around these days. (Again, washing your hands for 20 seconds is the best response.)
If you must grumble or glare in public, reserve it for the buffoons who cough on their cellphone screens like it’s some kind of modern-day handkerchief (and like it isn’t full of germs already). Disapprove of people coming into the office when they’re clearly sick, so long as your main focus is on whether their employer has a retrograde work-from-home policy that forces them to come in.
Never forget, however, that coronavirus causes fever, coughing, and labored breathing. If you’re worried about someone who’s out and about when you think they shouldn’t be, look for beads of sweat on their forehead. The logical (if extreme) preventative measure is to do what this Orange County, California restaurant chain has started doing to all its customers: test their temperature at the door. Perhaps in the future we’ll all wear forehead temperature gauges in public during outbreaks, just to reassure the excessively nervous.
But sneezing in general is not, and should not be, something to be ashamed of. We have enough trouble right now dealing with record levels of disinformation, xenophobia, and government ineptitude swirling around the coronavirus. Let’s not add sneeze-shaming to the list.