Social stigma in the context of health is the negative association between a person or group of people 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 people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus.
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’.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT?
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
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.
DO - talk about the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Don’t - attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus”. The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatisation - the “co” stands for Corona, “vi” for virus and “d” for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019.
DO - 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 COVID19”
Don’t - refer to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims”
DO - talk about “people who may have COVID-19” or “people who are presumptive for COVID-19”
Don’t - talk about “COVID-19 suspects” or “suspected cases”.
DO - talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” COVID-19
Don’t talk about people “transmitting COVID-19” “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame. Using criminalising or dehumanising terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us.
DO - speak accurately about the risk from COVID-19, based on scientific data and latest official health advice.
Don’t - repeat or share unconfirmed rumours, and avoid using hyperbolic language designed to generate fear like “plague”, “apocalypse” etc.
DO - talk positively and emphasise the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures. For most people this is a disease they can overcome. There are simple steps we can all take to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable safe.
Don’t - emphasise or dwell on the negative, or messages of threat. We need to work together to help keep those who are most vulnerable safe.
DO - emphasise the effectiveness of adopting protective measures to prevent acquiring the new coronavirus, as well as early screening, testing and treatment.
Misconceptions, rumours and misinformation are contributing to stigma and discrimination which hamper response efforts.
• Correct misconceptions, at the same time as acknowledging that people’s feelings and subsequent behaviour are very real, even if the underlying assumption is false.
Share sympathetic narratives, or stories that humanize the experiences and struggles of individuals or groups affected by the new coronavirus (COVID-19)
Communicate support and encouragement for those who are on the frontlines of response to this outbreak (health care workers, volunteers, community leaders etc).
Facts, not fear will stop the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)
• Share facts and accurate information about the disease.
• Challenge myths and stereotypes.
• Choose words carefully. The way we communicate can affect the attitudes of others.
With thanks to the Bargaining Council for this timely and important information!
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