Stop Telling People to Wash Their Hands: The Myth of Responsibility in the Pandemic

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'Exhibit A...Coronavirus swab. Yes that is where the swab goes. So unless you'd like this done to you... u...stay home and wash your hands!!! Please. Facebook/MedicalMemes'
Meme going viral right now

This meme is going around social media. Along with these:

Plus parody songs that time washing hands, instructional videos on how to get that lather, and a shortage of anti-bacterial soap that demonstrates people are listening.

So I don’t seriously think you should stop washing your hands. It should have been standard practice. And yes, we could all use a little reminder to linger at the sink and up our thoroughness.

That said, I have several issues with this message as the dominant one we’re still reciting, meming, and sharing. Back in January, this “wash your hands” campaign was a good introduction to the escalation about to come. And yet we’ve spent more time repeating this phrase than sharing vital information from the CDC, World Health Organization, public health departments, and other sources.

We are past the initial stage of the crisis and should be focusing on identifying symptoms, where to go for testing, how to protect yourself from infecting others, and what to do for yourself if you don’t need hospitalization. This is the information we should be spreading online.

Using risk language (like in the meme above) simplifies disease transmission into a Magic Bullet Model. Under this falsely-conveyed causation, if you test positive for COVID-19, then you must have failed at washing your hands or not touching your face. This is not how disease works. Transmission, susceptibility, and immunity are complicated. We don’t know exactly how each person got infected so we need to stop assigning blame for those yet to be infected. And with that, stop blaming people from other countries too. It won’t protect you. Instead, treat everyone like they are Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, or Idris Elba.

Here’s the deal: We need regular people to feel comfortable coming forward and sharing their personal experiences so stop stigmatizing individuals who have tested positive (and the many who likely have the disease but aren’t being tested). It is helpful to hear about the varied unfolding of this disease and how it affects different people. We should be thinking about how we can best be prepared and help out, not accusing others of improper hand washing. The when is here. It’s time to shift our own messages accordingly.

(And, yes, we wash our hands).

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