COVID-19 & stigma: How to prevent and address social stigma in your community
Here's how you can talk about coronavirus without contributing to stigmatization
The coronavirus' spread and global reach has been a source of concern and a call for collective action to prevent the virus from spreading further. While you may be feeling worried about how to stay safe amidst this pandemic, it is critical that we keep coronavirus-related stigma to a minimum as it may make this challenging situation worse.
Around the world there have been reports of individuals being subject to verbal or even physical abuse as their ethnicity was unfairly associated with the virus.
Public health emergencies are stressful times for everyone affected. It’s important to stay informed and to be kind and supportive to each other. Words matter, and using language that perpetuates existing stereotypes can drive people away from getting tested and taking the actions they need to protect themselves and their communities.
Each one of us has a role to play in preventing discrimination through kindness, speaking up against negative stereotypes, learning more about mental health and sharing individual experiences to provide the support needed.
What is social stigma?
Social stigma in the context of health is the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In an outbreak, this may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease.
Such treatment can negatively affect those with the disease, as well as their caregivers, family, friends and communities. People who don’t have the disease but share other characteristics with this group may also suffer from stigma.
Why is COVID-19 causing so much stigma?
The level of stigma associated with COVID-19 is based on three main factors: 1) it is a disease that’s new and for which there are still many unknowns; 2) we are often afraid of the unknown; and 3) it is easy to associate that fear with ‘others’.
It is understandable that there is confusion, anxiety, and fear among the public. Unfortunately, these factors are also fueling harmful stereotypes.
What is the impact of stigma?
Stigma can undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread. This can result in more severe health problems and difficulties controlling a disease outbreak.
- Drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination
- Prevent people from seeking health care immediately
- Discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours.
How to address social stigma
Health experts recommend showing empathy to those affected, understanding the disease itself, and adopting effective, practical measures so people can help keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Each one of us has a role to play in preventing discrimination through kindness, speaking up against negative stereotypes, learning more about mental health and sharing individual experiences to provide the support needed.
When talking about coronavirus disease, certain words (i.e suspect case, isolation…) and language may have a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatizing attitudes. They can perpetuate existing negative stereotypes or assumptions, strengthen false associations between the disease and other factors, create widespread fear, or dehumanise those who have the disease. This can drive people away from getting screened, tested and quarantined.
Spread facts, not fear
Stigma can be heightened by insufficient knowledge about how the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is transmitted and treated, and how to prevent infection. Here are some steps to help stop the spread of misinformation:
- Use only credible, official sources such as the Ministry of Health, WHO and UNICEF.
- Check the facts on official websites or social media platforms before acting, believing advice or sharing information online.
- Don’t spread misinformation, even if it seems accurate.