It used to be respectable, even desirable, for someone who was sneezing and coughing and spewing germs to stay home until the siege passes. Now, in a cultural turnabout that threatens us all, it has become preferable, even admirable, for people to carry on, despite their afflictions. This despite the fact that the stiff upper lip is very likely to be a viral or bacterial hot zone.
I stood at a salad bar last week next to someone who was barely ambulatory. Clearly in the throes of a terrible cold, she was hacking away and wiping her nose and rubbing her pink eyes as she helped herself to the tossed field greens and the artichoke hearts. At the least, her presence was unappetizing; at worst, it was a health threat. But I suspect that she was on a lunch break, and somewhere a boss was praising her loyalty and stamina for coming to work, despite her discomfort.
An ad I saw on TV yesterday offered a product that can “control symptoms” while you go about your day. First it showed a miserable man lying in bed, tending to his dripping valves and suffering with the flu. Then it showed the same man hopping on a subway, gamely going to work, while the medicine controlled his flu symptoms, including temperature, body pain and headache. The entire push of the head-cold-and-flu commercials is to get us out of bed and into the workplace, where, undoubtedly, victims spread their germs to their co-workers. The message is that it’s weak and unsporting of you to give in to the common bacteria or virus. The valuable employee is a warrior, meeting his obligations, working overtime despite illness or pain.
Think of this as the North Korean mindset. Is it the new machismo to be sick but to go to work anyway? Or is it far more practical — that people want to preserve their sick days and their jobs? We don’t take care of ourselves the way we should. A cold or the flu requires rest along with medication. And we don’t worry enough about passing these germs on to others. It is as if the germ theory of contagion is some new concept, not fully accepted by everyone.