Georgetown Sweetgreen

Blame and Shame for Suffering: Obesity and COVID

Suffering creates a vacuum. But health stigma is always ready to fill that vacuum, so blame and shame flow in and amplify the suffering. This has long been the case with obesity. We’re now seeing it come into play with COVID and even with the intersection of COVID and obesity.

This is called blaming the victim.

The Sweetgreen CEO Makes a Mess

Earlier this week, Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman unwittingly provided a master class on this subject. His healthy-halo restaurant chain confidentially filed for an IPO in June. So it seemed like a good time to raise his profile on social media. What better way than to insinuate that his company’s salads might be part of the solution to the pandemic? So he wrote on LinkedIn:

“78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to? Is there another way to think about how we tackle ‘healthcare’ by addressing the root cause?”

He even went so far as to suggest that attacking the “root cause” of our suffering (obesity) might be smarter than current public health advice:

“We clearly have no problem with government overreach on how we live our lives all in the name of ‘health,’ however we are creating more problems than we are solving.”

His answer: “What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal?” Distilled to its essence, the point here is that people are fat because they’re not eating enough of his sweet greens. That’s why COVID is making them sick. Next problem.

Of course, this did not play out as he intended. His post came down quickly after people recognized it as fat-phobic and ignorant.

Disenfranchised Death and Grief

All of the controversy and misinformation around COVID is not just killing people. It amplifies the grief and suffering of all the people affected. Ken Doka at the Hospice Foundation of America calls this disenfranchised death and grief. Sara Albuquerque, Ana Margarida Teixeira, and José Carlos Rocha describe this in the context of COVID-19:

“COVID-19 related deaths are in multiple ways lonely and dehumanized processes for patients and families. Limitations in self-efficacy, choice, and control not only changed the landscape of grief and grieving but pose a significant risk and added burden in the already arduous and painful grieving experience.”

Salads are not going to reverse the COVID epidemic. They don’t cure obesity, either. Such a stupid suggestion serves only to add to the alienation of people who are suffering. Shame and blame amplify the suffering of people who are living with obesity. They don’t help with COVID, either.

Click here and here for more on Neman’s missteps. For his post that started this, click here. For more on disenfranchised death and grief, click here and here.

Georgetown Sweetgreen, photograph © Eestroff / Wikimedia Commons

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September 4, 2021