Frank King has gotten death threats. So many angry strangers have called his phone in recent weeks that he changed his number. And his neighbors have offered to bring food to his doorstep if he would just agree to stay inside his house.
“I have a whole new respect for the plight of pariahs,” said King, who was among 650 Americans who returned to the United States last month after being stuck for more than a week on a cruise ship that no country initially allowed to dock because of fear of coronavirus.
One person from that ship, the Westerdam, was said to have briefly tested positive on the way home, sparking an international panic. In the days that followed, 1,580 crew members and passengers tested negative, including King. Nonetheless, King has been the target of rage because of his decision to fly home before he received the test results.
The scathing criticism he has received illustrates how swiftly societal pressure can bear down on people who are perceived to be endangering public health, even if they pose no actual threat.
Some have had longtime friends and neighbors disappear on them. Others have had babysitters abruptly quit. Still others, like Christina Kerby, have been shamed for buying lunch in public, even after they were cleared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to move about freely.
“I’m now feeling the firsthand effects of stigma,” said Kerby, a Westerdam passenger who has received angry Twitter messages from strangers who believe she should self-quarantine.
“It takes an incident like this for someone to realize who their true loyal friends and family are,” said Michael Parry, another Westerdam passenger who said he was uninvited from a family baby shower taking place after his return to the United States.
The sharpest insults appear to have been reserved for those who were perceived to have endangered public health by failing to isolate themselves sufficiently.
Jeri Seratti-Goldman, a passenger evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that carried hundreds of coronavirus patients, including her husband, has received many supportive messages but also hate mail that accused her of knowingly bringing the virus to the United States.
“The primary way we think about risk is through our gut feelings,” said Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who is also president of Decision Research, an institute that studies decision-making and risk. “The modern way to deal with risk is through science and statistics. We can think that way, but it’s hard to do.”
People tend to react most strongly against risks they cannot control, Slovic said, adding that because the new coronavirus can be transmitted by people who show no symptoms, it triggers a “heightened sense of fear.”
Jane Futcher, a 72-year-old Westerdam passenger, said a close friend in the San Francisco area refused to let her and her partner stay over the night they returned to the United States.
“That kind of hurt, especially since we were so tired,” said Futcher, who stayed in a motel instead. “It reminded me of the old days in the AIDS epidemic when people didn’t know if you could touch a person with AIDS.”
After the Westerdam was allowed to dock in Cambodia, King, a stand-up comedian who performed on the ship, arranged his own travel home. He boarded a commercial flight the same day he was swabbed for the coronavirus test, before receiving the results.
Holland America, the cruise ship company that operates the Westerdam, said guests were supposed to wait for their results before getting on a plane. But King said that a member of the CDC told him there was no reason he could not return home since he had no symptoms and had not traveled through mainland China.
“I wish I’d said, ‘Can I get that in writing?’” he said. “If the gentleman from the CDC had said, ‘Look, you need to hang around,’ I would have sat tight. I’m not going to put the public at risk.” A spokeswoman for the CDC said she could not confirm or deny his account.
Since his return, people have sent him messages saying they hope he dies of the flu. One angry person pledged to ruin his comedy career and make sure he never got booked for another gig.
“People are giving my wife a hard time, asking, ‘Is he sorry now?’” said King, who initially declined an interview but eventually told his story. Although the CDC has since declared Westerdam passengers to be “low risk,” he said, “I’m sorry that I scared anyone.”
King says the silver lining is that he has grown much more aware of the plight of teenagers who are bullied online. In addition to hate mail, he has also received supportive messages from friends and strangers alike. A veterinarian declined to charge him simply because he had been having a tough time.
“The acts of kindness have made me weep,” he said.