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Positive Coronavirus Test? Canadians Worry Their Neighbors Will Find Out

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The fear of public shaming is becoming so prevalent in some Canadian provinces that doctors worry it is driving virus cases underground.

Cortland Cronk moved to Victoria, British Columbia, after being publicly shamed in his home province of New Brunswick. Cortland Cronk moved to Victoria, British Columbia, after being publicly shamed in his home province of New Brunswick.Credit…Jackie Dives for The New York Times Catherine Porter

  • Feb. 21, 2021Updated 11:45 a.m. ET

For a time, Cortland Cronk, 26, was Canada’s most famous — and infamous — coronavirus patient.

Mr. Cronk, a traveling salesman, went viral after testing positive in November and recounting his story of being infected while traveling for work to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

He was called a virus-spreader, a job-killer, a liar and a sleaze. Online memes painted him as the Grinch, since subsequent outbreaks led to restrictions against Christmas parties. Many people, including a newspaper columnist, made elaborate fun of his name.

He also received threats. So many, in fact, that he fled his hometown, Saint John, for Victoria — a city on the opposite end of the country, 3,600 miles away.

“They were acting like I purposely got Covid,” Mr. Cronk said from his new apartment. “I had hundreds of death threats per day. People telling me I should be publicly stoned.”

Many Canadians believed that it was just rewards and that his case formed a cautionary tale to others who flagrantly break the rules, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Some even think more formal shaming should happen in Canada, with governments not just fining culprits for breaking coronavirus regulations but broadcasting their names.

Others have argued Mr. Cronk is a victim of a worsening civic problem in the country — public shaming of people testing positive — that is not just unfair but ineffective and that makes the coronavirus harder to quash.

“It might feel like a release for the community, but it does very little to prevent virus transmission,” said Robert Huish, an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who is conducting a study on the coronavirus and stigma. “In the process, we are causing people harm.”

Canadians might be known internationally as nice, apologetic and fair-minded. But, a year after the pandemic arrived, some Canadians worry it has exposed a very different national persona: judgmental, suspicious and vengeful. Covid-shaming has become fervent in parts of the country, with locals calling for the heads of not just politicians and doctors breaking the rules but their own family members and neighbors.

“It’s not getting Covid — it’s breaking the rules that worries us,” said Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and English professor at the University of Toronto, noting that a Canadian foundational motto is “peace, order and good government.”

“What’s the key point? It’s order,” he said. “For order to be sustained, we have to follow the rules. Canadians are a distinctly rule-focused and rule-following people.”

Complaint lines — or so-called “snitch lines” — set up across Canada have been flooded with tips about people suspected of breaking quarantine rules, businesses flouting public health restrictions and outsiders, arriving with unfamiliar license plates, potentially bringing the disease with them.

ImageSome have argued that Mr. Cronk is a victim of a worsening civic problem:  public shaming of people testing positive for the coronavirus. Some have argued that Mr. Cronk is a victim of a worsening civic problem:  public shaming of people testing positive for the coronavirus.Credit…Jackie Dives for The New York Times

Facebook groups are full of stories of people being labeled potential vectors and being refused service, disinvited from family gatherings and reported to the police and public health authorities.

“This is impacting our ability to contain the virus,” said Dr. Ryan Sommers, one of eight public health doctors in Nova Scotia who published a letter beseeching locals in the small Atlantic province to stop shaming one another, as fear of discrimination was delaying reports of Covid symptoms and potentially driving cases underground.

The province has one of the lowest Covid rates in the country: just 18 active cases, as of Feb 20. But instead of offering solace, people have become hypervigilant, Dr. Sommers said.

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