Gossip & Bullying in the Time of COVID

Bonny Zeh, co-founder of the Stop Bullying Coalition, shares her observations and ideas. Updated 24 October—JH

Gossip and bullying not only target people in public and subsidized housing but also inhibit the essential collaboration needed to protect everyone from COVID. Gossip and bullying together are a contagious social disease that destroys trust and drives us apart from each other. Together, we can find a way to overcome these barriers so all of us can survive this plague.

I live in an 80-unit, medium rise, federally subsidized housing for elderly and the disabled run by the local housing authority. We have a group of tenants who have a history of spreading malicious gossip—their main form of entertainment—and bullying other residents. They gather by the main entrance of the building and by the mail boxes. They continue to loiter near the main entrance, even though their favorite spot has been roped off (because of COVID-19).

Most of them don’t follow the COVID-19 rules as strictly as they should. Sometimes, they don’t wear masks. When they wear masks, they wear them with the mask only covering their mouths. They don't consistently practice social distancing.

We also have family members visit their relatives who live here, gathering close to the main entrance. Many times, these people—the loiterers and visiting family—don't follow the rules: don't socially distance, either don't wear a mask or don't wear it properly.

Last week, I overheard gossip about COVID-19 in my building from the loiterers. I also heard that gossip from two other tenants. The gossip is that three residents have come down with COVID-19. I have been told that the owners of the nearby small businesses have heard this gossip and are treating it as fact.

I don't care if this gossip is true or not. Either way, something has to be done.

If the gossip is true, you really do want to stay away from the loiterers. Should one of them get COVID-19, that person is likely to infect others. They are all at an elevated risk to have a bad outcome if they get COVID-19.

If this rumor is false, you want to stay away from the loiterers, because they spread false information far and wide. A false COVID-19 rumor is definitely a form of malicious gossip—bullying.

It's time to put an end to this type of rumor. Residents deserve real information. Residents need to know if someone in their community came down with COVID-19. If the sick person does not want people to know, we need to respect that person's privacy.

Since many residents are mobility impaired, we need COVID-19 testing to come to our building. Residents need to be reminded that people who don’t appear to be sick could be spreading COVID-19. We live near a college that has had an outbreak of COVID-19. Residents need to be reminded to follow the COVID-19 rules, such as properly wearing a mask when you can’t social distance, wash or sanitize your hands, regularly sanitize high touch surfaces in your apartment.

Maintenance is doing it’s part by regularly sanitizing high touch surfaces in the common areas of the building.

Let’s stop the rumors, let’s stop the bullying, and let’s work together to stay safe.

Update, 24 October, 2020


The situation has changed.

I now believe the gossip that my building has residents suffering from COVID-19 is likely to be true. The gossip is that we have 5 sick residents. Nearly all members of the clique that loiters by the main entrance of the building are nowhere to be seen. Thursday afternoon, I saw a Cambridge Health Associates wheelchair van, with blacked out passenger windows, pull in front of my building. A man, wearing full personal protection equipment, got out of the van and proceeded to unload an elderly man, who looked decidedly unwell.

So far, the Somerville Housing Authority has been mum. I would have expected, at a bare minimum,  that they would have sent a general alert to residents, reminding them to practice social distancing and to properly wear masks. I would have expected that Resident Services would be talking to the health department, to make arrangements for COVID-19 testing for all residents.

We deserve REAL information from official sources—and that includes from our landlord.  All of us who live in senior citizens / persons with disabilities are at elevated risk for having a bad outcome if we catch COVID-19. We should not have to rely on gossip in order to find out if our building has a problem. We need our landlord to tell us what steps are being taken in order to protect us who probably don't have COVID-19 from this disease. We need our landlord to STRONGLY enforce mask wearing and social distancing—something that is not happening. We need our landlord to STRONGLY enforce the 'No Visitors' policy. Those who routinely violate these rules NEED to be held responsible for these actions, to the fullest extent of what the lease and the law allows. Landlords need to consider evicting the most egregious violators.

If this rumor about COVID-19 is false, those responsible for spreading this rumor need to be held accountable.

[But consider that in the absence of valid information from a trusted source, gossip will fill the gap. The legislature sought to provide information about COVID-19 in elderly housing, but the Department of Public Health has not followed the mandate to report on infections in elderly housing. Furthermore, despite the likelihood that public health officials are aware of infections, the Commissioner of Public Health has decreed that a local health department may only release the address of an infection to first responders. A combination of legislative and administrative actions can provide the needed information in a timely, facility-specific manner. See: https://stopbullyingcoalition.org/data-reports for discussion and proposals.—JH]

I am taking appropriate precautions. I am limiting my interactions with other residents. I am sanitizing high touch areas, both in my own apartment and in the common areas, things I touch. I have turned off my heat and opened the windows, because good indoor ventilation reduces the risk of spread. I properly mask in public--and that includes in the common areas of my building. I have at least two weeks worth of food, extra sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer. I'm practicing social distancing.

I have been contacting my elected officials. My state senator, Pat Jehlen, has called the health department on behalf of the residents of Weston Manor.


Help us survey housing to pinpoint where there is COVID, and where it has been kept out. Because none of the government agencies are doing this survey, we'll do it ourselves. Join the Little Red Hen Survey. Together we will protect our communities.