Jack Knox: Chased by the faceless mob, he fled to Victoria

You would hope a positive COVID diagnosis would elicit a measure of sympathy.

Instead, Cortland Cronk, blamed for bringing the virus to New Brunswick, was hounded so badly that he fled to Victoria.

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The 27-year-old says his story shows the folly of playing the blame-and-shame game. It’s a cautionary tale that this week made it all the way to the pages of the New York Times, which spoke of the danger of public scorn “driving virus cases underground.”

“It was insane,” Cronk said in ­Victoria on Wednesday, describing what he went through late last year. Death threats. Vicious phone messages. Raging emails based on rumours and assumptions that he says just weren’t true. He was blamed for ruining ­Christmas.

The software consultant’s troubles began Oct. 24 when he flew home to Saint John from a four-day business trip to Calgary. Deemed an essential worker and showing no symptoms of the coronavirus, he was told at the airport that he need not self-isolate.

On Nov. 2, after experiencing minor headaches and congestion, and with a sales trip to the U.S. on the horizon, he got tested. No one said not to travel, so he and a friend drove to Fredericton the next day, stopping at a business there. It was just as they got back to Saint John that night that Cronk went online and discovered his test was positive. He says health authorities told him to stay quiet about it as they did their contact tracing.

However, he got worried after ­reading about the frustrations of the Fredericton business owner, who was angry with Cronk and with the lack of direction from health authorities who told him his shop had been visited by someone with the virus. Cronk says that because he had been told not to talk of his test result, he had at first denied to the owner that he was the one, but then told him the truth.

Believing he would eventually be identified as that person, Cronk decided to get in front of the story by telling the CBC of his own experiences, effectively outing himself as the ­positive case. “I didn’t want the word to get out through another source.”

Unfortunately for him, the ­subsequent story in the last week of November came as New Brunswick, citing superspreader events that had caused a spike in cases, clamped down on Christmas celebrations.

At the same time, an Oct. 31 Instagram video popped up in which Cronk, who in addition to the sales job had a cannabis-related business, could be seen smoking weed after trimming pot plants, and talking about travel, COVID and having lost his sense of taste. That was a joke, he says, as he always gets congested when trimming plants. It was when those symptoms persisted the next day that he decided to get tested.

Whatever. People watching the video decided that Cronk, aware of his condition, had nonetheless gone swanning around, becoming the superspreader. No, he protested, he had only been in close contact with a few people during the nine days between coming back from Calgary and getting diagnosed, and none of them, as far as he knows, tested positive.

Didn’t matter. The floodgates opened and the angry accusations poured in.

“I was getting death threats,” he says. “I was scared to leave my house.”

He was told his face should be smashed in, that he should be stoned to death, that he was a murderer. ­Someone, on the pretense of doing a business deal, tried to lure him to an out-of-the-way location; Cronk thinks it was a set-up for an assault. An online meme cast him as the Grinch in “How the Cronk stole Christmas.”

“He was called a virus-spreader, a job-killer, a liar and a sleaze,” the New York Times said in describing the ordeal of that man who it says was, for a time, “Canada’s most famous — and infamous — coronavirus patient.”

“Canadians might be known internationally as nice, apologetic and fair-minded,” the Times story said. “But, a year after the pandemic arrived, some Canadians worry it has exposed a very different national persona: judgmental, suspicious and vengeful.”

By the first week of December, Cronk had had enough. He and his spouse spent the big bucks on a short-notice flight and bolted to Victoria. They had been planning to relocate to B.C. in 2022, but the nastiness turbo-charged the schedule.

The thing is, even if he were guilty of the sins of which he was accused, it might have been counter-productive for the torches-and-pitchforks mob to go after him. “The shaming part and the harassing part is detrimental to our recovery,” Cronk says.

He knows of people who now avoid being tested because they are less afraid of the illness itself than of the backlash from a positive diagnosis. Rather than risk being hounded, they just shut up and carry on with their lives. Such is the consequence of l­eaping to judgment.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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