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Opinion | Covid Etiquette: Don’t Come to a Holiday Party With a Cough

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.

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“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.

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