Covid-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) is brand-new pandemic sweeping the world in 2020. Everyone has been affected. Many have died. More yet, will die. The world has changed and may never be quite the same again. There is anxiety, fear, sadness, uncertainty and anger. There is also stigma…

What is Covid-19 stigma?

This stigma refers to thinking negatively and or judgmentally (i.e. stigmatising) about a person because of some link between them and Covid-19. Most commonly it affects those who have tested positive for the virus, but it can also affect family members, neighbours, and other contacts. It has been seen to affect front-line workers such as healthcare workers, the police, shopkeepers, etc. In some instances it targets racial groups, cultural groups, religious groups, etc.

What does it look like?

Covid-19 stigma has been seen to include:

  • Avoiding contact – we all know that we must stay away from people as much as we can during this pandemic, but Covid-stigma often takes this to extremes where people are treated like olden-times-lepers.
  • Negative labeling. Covid stigma can see people labelled as “spreaders” or “suspicious” or “infected” or “diseased” or similar negative terms.
  • Expulsion – in extreme cases Covid stigma may lead to communities or workplaces expelling those thought to have the virus (Note: self-isolation or quarantine is a different thing, and quite legitimate when done on the recommendation of medical experts).

What’s the harm?

This sort of stigma creates harm in two main ways:

  1. The victims suffer emotionally, socially, at work, at home, and more. It is not easy to be ostracised and viewed with extreme suspicion by your own community.
  2. Stigma tends to drive the disease “underground” in that people become secretive and afraid to disclose their positive status. It can even cause people to avoid being tested and or treated.

In essence, Covid-19 stigma creates unnecessary suffering and it hampers our efforts to combat the pandemic.

How do we fix this?

Almost all stigma starts with ignorance (of the real facts) so tackling stigma is primarily an exercise in education. Once people understand the pandemic properly, notions of stigma tend to melt away. Some of these key learnings include:

  • This is a brand new virus that is infecting and affecting the whole planet.
  • This virus does not discriminate: all of us can be infected. The poorest and the richest. The pale and the dark. Men and women. People of all religions and cultures. Everyone. While it is true that the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions fare more poorly if infected, everyone can be infected and nobody is 100% safe.
  • The virus is spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact (close breathing) with others. We are learning more and new details do emerge, but this basic information about how the virus spreads, is important since it underlines how we might slow its spread (by distancing ourselves from others).
  • The virus can survive on surfaces and so regular disinfection of surfaces as well as regular hand-washing can be helpful.
  • It takes between 3 and 15 days for an infected person to develop symptoms. Many infected people do not develop any symptoms at all. So there is no way to identify an infected person.
  • As things stand at mid July 2020, there is no treatment and there is no cure and there is no vaccine. It is therefore likely that the virus will continue spreading until we have treatments or vaccines, or until we develop “herd immunity” – once some 60% of a population has been infected (assuming infection confers immunity, which is not yet known), the virus finds too-few people to infect and gradually declines naturally.

A learning from the HIV pandemic: universal precautions

In the early days of the HIV pandemic it was thought that one way to stay safe would be to identify those at high risk (of being HIV positive) and treat them extra-carefully. This tended to backfire because it was impossible to identify at-risk persons with any reliability (all sexually active people are at risk for contracting HIV) and because it created ugly stigma problems. The preferred approach, adopted quite early on, was to see any person as potentially HIV-positive and to apply “universal precautions” regarding anyone’s blood or sexual fluids. Since everyone was treated the same way, the stigma tended to reduce.

In the case of coronavirus we should accept that anyone can be infected and therefore anyone can be infectious. We should apply “universal precautions” but not with regard to blood and sexual fluids this time but with simpler things like physical distance, hygiene, and mask-wearing. This notion of seeing any and every person as “potentially infected and or infectious” goes a long way in helping us understand the futility and cruelty of stigmatising others.

Words matter

We need to be careful about the words and terms we use. We should avoid negative, judgmental, or cruel words in favour of using simple accurate language that is never critical of anyone in any way. Examples of this include (admittedly some of these are subtle so please just give them careful thought):

  • Talk about coronavirus and not “the Chinese virus”.
  • Talk about people with coronavirus and not “positive cases” or “infected” or “cases”.
  • Talk about people “contracting the virus” and not about people “spreading the virus”.
  • Talk about known facts and avoid repeating anything that you’re not certain of (do not spread rumours and fake news).

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that is causing much misery, many tragic deaths, major economic hardships, hunger crises, and more. We need to fight it together. Stigma has no place in this war against a deadly invisible enemy. We can all do our part here. What will you do today?