Combat Stigma: Time to drive home the point and drop the 'infected'

From Tik Tok stars to religious leaders, everyone can help promote empathy and self-care. These voices can amplify important messages and create a sense of responsibility.

Returnees to Manipur (PHOTO: IFP)


From the early days of the HIV epidemic to the current coronavirus crisis, a major challenge around infectious diseases has been dealing with the deep-seated stigma around affected populations. People often do not like to talk about disease-related stigma as it exposes their collective prejudices. Some even doubt that such prejudices exist. But the truth is that it is only natural to be fearful and anxious. Across the world, Covid-19 has sparked unwarranted behaviour towards health workers, infected persons and their families, certain ethnicities, and anyone with even a sliver of connection to the disease.

Who is doing the stigmatizing?

You and I, our families, neighbours, community members, and even the state. As India and the rest of the world comes together to fight the global pandemic, it is time we address our prejudices.

COVID Stigma not a soft issue

Stigma faced by affected populations is not a “soft” issue. Such stigma
and discrimination are suffered by those people affected with COVID-19,
their family, caregivers,friends and those under quarantine, including
frontline health workers like doctors, nurses and paramedical staffs.
Even those who have recovered from COVID-19 are facing such stigma.

The affected people developed mental stress which greatly affect their life. It increases a sense of emotional isolation, feeling of guilt and anxiety, lack of self-esteem and confidence. These may lead to increase in the number of COVID-19 positives cases which are being reported or making the management of the outbreak more difficult and divert from the required preventive measures which need to be undertaken.

The virus didn't kill them

To understand the ways in which this can incite violence and push people towards self-harm, one need not look further than Himachal Pradesh, where Mohammad Dilshad, a 37-year-old resident of Una district, hung himself after being consistently taunted and harassed by his community. This, despite the fact that Dilshad had tested negative for Covid-19. Another young girl in Manipur who returned home after quarantine also hung herself inside her house. The virus didn’t kill them, but stigma got the job done.

Arm with Facts

We are all fed by fear, internalized racism and misinformation. And this
will heighten with the growing number of cases, rising mortality rate and limited testing facilities. We are confronted with a crisis that we don’t know enough about. To rise above it, the first thing to do is arm ourselves with facts about the disease and how to care for it medically, physically and emotionally.

What India needs

In India, there is currently a lack of clear and effective communication and a knowledge-based stigma reduction strategy that can translate into public education, community engagement, and trust in the health care system. What we need is more layered and less panicked communication.

Drive home the point

First, we should acknowledge that the virus will no go away any time soon. Any strategy needs to be long term, broad based and transparent, with key public figures who can help the state communicate this on a daily basis. Unless the state can help people understand the disease itself, telling them not to be anxious about it is futile. Further, it needs to drive home the point that stigmatising people and communities will not help.

Drop the language of fear

Second, we need to move from the language of fear and paranoia toone of empathy. We can stop using terms such as “infected” and “carrier” and switch to “affected” or “acquired.” This reminds people that patients and those at risk are people just like us. It time for the government to build a multilingual, multipronged influencer strategies. From Tik Tok stars to religious leaders, everyone can help promote empathy and self-care. These voices can amplify important messages and create a sense of responsibility.

Say No to prejudice-driven attacks

Law enforcement agencies should also maintain low tolerance towards
prejudice-driven attacks. Moreover, first responders should be trained to cope with stigma, as dealing with negative attitudes can be detrimental for their mental health while carrying out their duties.

Breaking the sterotypes

A public awareness campaign around breaking stereotypes that harm
social cohesion and empathy is the need of the hour. We have already
seen sections of mainstream media and social media demonising certain communities and ethnicities. This is not just unethical, but also has a direct impact on disease control and people’s lives.

Protect with preventives

Although COVID-19 is highly contagious, we can protect ourselves by
following preventive measures such as physical distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing face cover or mask.

No one needs to be blamed

Despite precautions, if a person contracts COVID-19, it is not his /her fault. Anyone is susceptible to contracting the disease; no one needs to be blamed. We all need to give support and cooperation in such situations to those patients and the family.

Let’s fight together and celebrate them who have recovered from COVID-19 as winners. They do not have the virus and there is no risk of transmission.

(The views expressed are the writers' own)

First Published:Aug. 4, 2020, 10:55 p.m.

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