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.
The current COVID-19 outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against COVID-19 patients who have recovered from the disease and their families as well as persons perceived to have been in contact with the virus.
The level of stigma associated with COVID-19 is based on three main factors such as: it is a disease that’s new and for which there are still many unknowns; we are often afraid of the unknown; and it is easy to associate that fear with ‘others’. It is understandable that there is confusion, anxiety and fear among the public.
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.
Stigma can drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination, prevent people from seeking health care immediately and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours.
Evidence clearly shows that stigma and fear around communicable diseases hamper the response. What works is building trust in reliable health services and advice, showing empathy with those affected, understanding the disease itself, and adopting effective, practical measures so people can help keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
How we communicate about COVID-19 is critical in supporting people to take effective action to help combat the disease and to avoid fueling fear and stigma. An environment needs to be created in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively.
Here are some tips on how to address and avoid compounding, social stigma as adopted by the UNICEF and WHO:
Talk about the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) without attaching locations, families or ethnicity to the disease. For instance, this is not a “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus”. The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization – the “co” stands for Corona, “vi” for virus and “d” for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019.
Talk about “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19”, “people who are recovering from COVID-19” or “people who died after contracting COVID-19” without referring to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims”
Talk about “people who may have COVID-19” or “people who are presumptive for COVID-19” but don’t talk about “COVID-19 suspects” or “suspected cases”. Talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” COVID-19 but don’t talk about people “transmitting COVID-19” “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame.
Using criminalizing or dehumanizing terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, and potentially fueling wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend a screening, testing and quarantine.
Speak accurately about the risk from COVID-19, based on scientific data and latest official health advice without repeating or sharing unconfirmed rumours, and avoid using hyperbolic language designed to generate fear like “plague”, “apocalypse” etc.
Talk positively and emphasize the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures. For most people, this is a disease they can overcome and there are simple steps we can all take to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable safe.
Don’t emphasize or dwell on the negative, or messages of threat as we need to work together to help keep those who are most vulnerable safe but emphasize the effectiveness of adopting protective measures to prevent acquiring the new coronavirus, as well as early screening, testing and treatment.
Governments, citizens, media, key influencers and communities have an important role to play in preventing and stopping stigma surrounding people from China and Asia in general.
We all need to be intentional and thoughtful when communicating on social media and other communication platforms, showing supportive behaviours around the new coronavirus disease.
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