It is in human’s nature to stereotype and blame others when unfortunate events befall them. Practices like this is the reason why problematic situations like the manifestation of racism, colonialism, and looking down on oneself arise. A deadly virus such as the COVID-19 is no stranger to being associated with negative connotations. With millions of people infected by the COVID-19 virus, the social stigma related to the pandemic only continues to rise. What this essay will focus on is the social stigma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and also how to deal with it.
What is social stigma?
Social stigma is the negative association directed towards a certain group of people or country that arises because of a shared characteristic or disease. Those who are affected by social stigma are labelled, stereotyped, and are constantly under scrutiny from the eyes of strangers and acquaintances alike. Social stigma pushes unaffected people to discriminate those who they associate with a certain characteristic or disease just to draw a clear line of difference between them. Social stigma does nothing to help improve the situation everyone is currently in.
Social Stigma Caused by COVID-19
In this case, people who are infected with the COVID-19 virus are the ones who are mostly stigmatized. Unfortunately, some people are inclined to discriminate even those who are not infected with the virus just because they share some of the characteristics associated with COVID-19 such as one’s race. While the initial reaction of fear and joking about the pandemic was acceptable at first, it has been more than a year, as of writing, since the emergence of COVID-19 greeted the world in 2020.
The main social stigma those infected with the virus have to face is that they are being feared by other people. This is a rational initial reaction since humans are inclined to be wary of things that are unknown or they have little knowledge of. Since it has been more than a year, and the general public now knows more about COVID-19 compared to a year before, the driving force of this social stigma is no longer the fear of the unknown but the fear of getting infected themselves and passing the virus to loved ones.
If a person became infected with the virus, or came into close contact with someone who has been found positive, fear and anxiety is bound to be instilled to those who know of it. The same fear and anxiety drives a person to develop a stigmatization towards that person. A similar discrimination is also present in those who have been released from quarantine, may it be voluntary or not, and those who have recovered from COVID-19.
Aside from people who are directly associated with the COVID-19 as they have been infected or came to close contact with an infected person, people who have never been infected or never knew anyone who contracted COVID-19 is also prone to become part of the social stigma. Because the COVID-19 virus is known to have originated from China, some nationalities are inclined to blame and discriminate all Chinese people – no matter if they did not grow up or have set foot in China.
Other than racial association, healthcare workers are also affected by the social stigma caused by COVID-19. As they are constantly exposed to the virus, people are inclined to think that they are carriers and may infect them if they came to close contact with healthcare workers. People are wary and are inclined to refuse from being anywhere near them in fear of somehow catching the virus.
The last group of people primarily affected by the COVID-19 stigma are those who are travelling, no matter if their test results are negative before they actually returned home. Some people think that once a person gets out of a house, that person will instantly catch the virus one way or another. Because of that, individuals who have just returned from travelling are prone to being stigmatized too.
Impacts of COVID-19 Related Stigma
Being stigmatized because of COVID-19 can take a toll on a person’s mental health. Whether or not COVID-19 stigma is present or not, taking care of one’s mental health should always be prioritized. Social stigma can do a lot of damage to a person’s mental health, social life, future opportunities, and safety. Stigmatized people may feel hurt, shunned, abandoned, depressed, and angry because of the way people are treating them.
Stigmatizing people may also encourage them to take some time away from their home or workplace which may increase the chance of actually spreading the virus. This event in turn can result to a more concerning situation because the pandemic is getting harder and harder to contain in some nations as each day passes by. Here are some of the effects of COVID-19 stigma:
- People may be discouraged from getting themselves tested. To avoid being labelled prematurely, some individuals opt to wait until symptoms or further symptoms are to develop before getting themselves tested for COVID-19. This is an extremely risky move as a person may be unknowingly infected and get other people infected because he is avoiding to be part of the social stigma.
- COVID-19 infected individuals may be inclined to hide their illness. If they had the chance to get themselves tested, the onset of the fear from discrimination may only arise once an individual confirms that he is indeed infected with the virus. Hiding their illness comes with the consequence of not being able to properly attend to their needs in fear of other people of finding out about their true condition.
- They may be discouraged from seeking the medical attention that they need. Going into home quarantine, quarantine facilities, and hospitals automatically translate to a sign of danger for some people. Because of this, some people choose to decline receiving the medical attention they actually need as this will draw attention of other people and may cause them to conclude that they are in fact infected. Proper medical attention is essential for one to recover from an illness such as this.
- Stigmatized individuals may be excluded from social events. Those who have been infected and have already recovered from the virus may still be excluded from social events which may make them feel hurt. Even on social gatherings, there is a possibility that they will not be invited because of the unsettling feeling the social stigma may bring.
- Discriminated people may be the subjected to verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. The most concerning out of all the effects of COVID-19 stigma is that a stigmatized person is prone to being abused in a number of ways by people around them. This is very troubling as this can definitely worsen the health crisis the world is already in. Over time, if not addressed as soon as possible, a person may even blame himself for being part of the social stigma even if there is a possibility that he has no fault in getting infected.
How to Prevent COVID-19 Related Stigma
Because of the dire effects COVID-19 stigma has on affected people, the problem should be addressed as soon as possible in order to stop the stigma from getting worse than it already is. Healthcare professionals recommend a number of ways to reduce the stigma like showing empathy and avoiding from judging those who have been infected, exposed, and recovered, practicing kindness, and learning more about COVID-19 itself. Here are some other steps that a person may take in an effort to reduce the COVID-19 stigma:
- Reading up about COVID-19 and fact-checking about the legitimacy of what you read.
- Speaking out against inaccurate information and the social stigma.
- Showing support to those who are infected, exposed, and recovered individuals and also to healthcare workers.
- Uphold the privacy of a person in quarantine.
- Avoid from attaching the virus to the identity of a nationality.
- Emphasize that there are preventive measures, treatment methods, and vaccines available.
- Thank healthcare workers and other essential workers.
- Promote the importance of getting tested and receiving immediate treatment.
- Being sympathetic and understanding.
Stigmatizing people over a virus that is difficult to avoid is very unreasonable because not a single individual or a group of people is more likely to get infected or have the ability to pass on the virus to other people. Up until now, data on how to effectively contain the virus is still lacking so there really is no reason to discriminate a person or group of people no matter what their association to the pandemic is.
Aside from following health protocols as recommended by various healthcare providers, mainly by the World Health Organization, what a person can contribute in this trying times is by keeping oneself educated and avoiding from discriminating people unjustly. There are a lot of ways to contribute to the betterment of the situation the world is currently in and playing a part in aggravating the COVID-19 stigma is not one.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, & Division of Viral Diseases. (2020, February 11). COVID-19 and Your Health: Reducing Stigma. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/reducing-stigma.html
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, & World Health Organization. (2020, February). Social Stigma associated with COVID-19: A guide to preventing and addressing social stigma. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/covid19-stigma-guide.pdf
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, April 17). COVID-19 (coronavirus) stigma: What it is and how to reduce it. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-stigma/art-20484278