Social stigma is arising out of misinformation and panic surrounding the pandemic.
By Jagriti Parakh
The coronavirus outbreak is causing fear and apprehension leading to discrimination against people and communities. It is also promoting social isolation and stigma. All this has climaxed into increased enmity and disorder within the society.
Many people who are/were affected with COVID-19 as well as frontline workers, like police, healthcare, and sanitary workers, are facing discrimination because of the increased fear and misinformation about the infection.
Frontline workers in many parts of the country are being targeted and attacked. Many people who have undergone the screening and confirmation tests and have tested negative are also being treated poorly. Even those who have recovered from COVID-19 face such discrimination.
Since the emergence of #COVID19 we have seen instances of public stigmatization among specific populations and the rise of harmful stereotypes.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 24, 2020
WHO Situation Report 24 February 2020 ➡️ https://t.co/7kH9y0NViC #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/RmwMfM3X4w
Dr. A. Bhargava, a general physician, said, “A few days ago, a patient came to my clinic complaining of fever and sore throat. I had advised him to get himself tested. When his reports came and he was tested positive, even I decided to self-isolate and get myself tested as I had come in contact with him. As soon as my neighbors and other patients got to know about this, they stopped coming to me, even after my tests were negative. Some of them even started spreading rumors about me.”
There have been many instances like this one—many doctors have been spat at, people have directed abusive and discourteous language towards female paramedics, some physicians and their families have also been ostracized by their neighbors because of their exposure to patients infected with COVID-19.
Dr. Khushbu Jain, who is a part of the counseling team for COVID-19, said, “It is just so sad that people are believing everything they read online and attacking healthcare and other frontline workers. Nothing can justify this act—neither fear, nor distrust against government because of what has happened in the country recently. This is a public health emergency of international concern and people cannot spill their anger like this, especially over the ones that are fighting the pandemic.”
Patients who have recovered from COVID-19 also face discrimination and there are cases where they have been chased away from their homes by their neighbours. Many patients have taken to their social media accounts to talk about their experience publicly, because of the discrimination and stigma they are facing.
The Union Health Ministry issued an advisory asking people not to discriminate against anybody and also released a list of do’s and don’ts with a training manual for response and containment measures against COVID-19. The ministry writes that: Despite all precautions, if anybody catches COVID-19, it’s not their fault.
Further, certain communities are also being abused during this time of crisis because of existing biases or false information on social media and elsewhere.
Ilma Rashid, a fashion stylist and blogger, said, “My Instagram inbox is flooded with hate messages that mostly read: ‘You and your entire community should die before all of you spread the virus and infect the entire country.’ ‘Why are you here? Don’t you want to go outside and sneeze and spit on the entire neighborhood?’
All this is extremely disheartening—the same people who loved my work and appreciated me have now turned their back towards me. I have lost more than 3,000 followers in the past month—I believe most of them have unfollowed because of the misinformation that is being spread about the entire community. People think that we are all infected.”
Other communities are also facing similar circumstances or even worse. Dalits are considered untouchable under India’s caste system and the coronavirus outbreak has intensified that misrepresentation. Sanitary workers, waste-pickers, drain cleaners—all those who belong to the lower caste—are called dirty and are mistreated.
Mangal, who picks waste from buildings and goes from house-to-house cleaning toilets, said, “Our jobs are considered essential services by the Indian government, but we haven’t been given adequate equipment to protect ourselves against infection. Families do not let me in anymore—I am left jobless. Now if I get sick, there’s no social safety net to protect my family and me against poverty.”
Stigma occurs when people negatively associate an infectious disease with a specific population. This means that people are being labeled, stereotyped, separated and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with COVID19.
WHO tweeted: Given that COVID19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread cause confusion, anxiety, and fear among the general public. These factors can give rise to harmful stereotypes.
WHO also said that stigma can drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination, prevent them from seeking health care immediately and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviors. It could also potentially contribute to more severe health problems.
Governments, citizens, media, key influencers & communities have an important role to play in— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 25, 2020
preventing & stopping stigma.
We all need to be intentional & thoughtful when communicating on social media & other platforms, showing supportive behaviors around #COVID19. Do your part! pic.twitter.com/acpXS7Y6iz
Experts call this an ‘infodemic’ that is born out of the fear associated with the pandemic and the lack of awareness.
Garima Dakalia, an internationally certified counselor, said, “There is an urgent need to counter such biases and misinformation by spreading health literacy. We should all fuel our actions with kindness and compassion in the face of adversity. In this time of crisis, people need to support each other and be compassionate. Hunting someone down or harassing them based on the false information that is being fed to us online, is only leading us to an infodemic amid the ongoing pandemic—we don’t know which will destroy us first.”
Watch this video by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to address social stigma associated with COVID-19: