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Stigmatising in the time of COVID-19
President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently urged South Africans to actively oppose the stigmatisation of Covid-19 patients. It seems that the problem of stigmatisation is more far-reaching than most people are aware of. In several communities it is increasingly reported that individuals with symptoms of COVID-19, or even individuals who are suspected to carry symptoms of COVID-19, are being ostracized from their communities. In some cases, communities actively protest against individuals and there are numerous reports of individuals being mocked, socially shunned, or being verbally abused. Most of the stigmatisation takes the form of blaming, implying that individuals or groups might be responsible for the effects of the virus.
While it is understandable that people experience uncertainty, panic and stress in these times, stigmatising an individual or group of people is basically discrimination based on irrational fears and the need to blame. Stigmatisation, especially with the context of COVID-19, is almost always based on a lack of information and lack of understanding. For example, few people really are aware that COVID-19 is not a “Chinese” or “Asian” virus, but the name was deliberately chosen to avoid typical stigmatisation. “Co” stands for Corona, “vi” for virus, “d” for disease, and 19” because the disease emerged in 2019. Human beings do not readily enjoy living with uncertainties, and the COVID-19 virus represents everything that human beings fear inherently. The virus and its effects are still unknown and therefore leads to universal uncertainty and speculation. Speculation can quickly take the form of conspiracy theories, and it has quickly become a trend that some individuals or groups are perceived to be “responsible” for the general negative implications of COVID-19. The dividing process of “us vs them” is naturally part of human dynamics, and within the COVID-19 environment leads to people hiding their symptoms of illness or drive them to not seek health care altogether. The process of stigmatisation is a well-known human trait, and developmental psychologists argue that this tendency is still inherent to evolving humans. In the early years of human development before language developed effectively, stigmatisation helped to identify people or groups with different points of view and beliefs and thus prevented possible risk and danger. However, the process of stigmatisation in modern times serves only to ostracize because of fear or lack of understanding, and therefore almost always is to the detriment of greater society in general. People who see how others are being stigmatised in their community now think twice before voluntarily allowing COVID-19 testing. In some cases, they refuse to attend a clinic and/or hospital whether COVID-19 symptoms are present or not. People who fear being stigmatised feel forced to hide symptoms or illness. In short, stigmatising during COVID-19 makes it much more difficult to control and manage the pandemic. The effect of stigmatising on the health system and economic ecosystem can be devastating when measured in financial terms and loss of human lives.
Groups that may experience stigma during the pandemic caused by COVID-19 include:
- Ethnic and racial minority groups, like Asian people
- People with disabilities, mental health disorders or behavioural “oddities”
- Healthcare workers and emergency personnel
- Homeless people and people with low income
- People testing positive for COVID-19, and/or people that are recovering or in quarantine
Community mobilisation and empowerment through knowledge can help prevent the stigmatising of others and the ostracizing of individuals and smaller communities. On an individual level, it helps not to attach ethnicity or specific geographical locations in general language when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic. It assists the greater good if we remain aware not to spread fake news or unconfirmed rumours, and/or not to engage in social media that does not originate from a reputable source. Like HIV/Aids, misconceptions and the consequent irrational stigmatising of others can be minimalised or eradicated through active education and transfer of knowledge. COVID-19 discriminates against no one, there is therefore no point in human beings wasting valuable time and resources by ostracizing sub-groups and subsequently hindering the collective fight against COVID-9.
During May 2020, the data analysis company Ipsos conducted a large online poll among South Africans. Individuals were asked which psychological difficulties they experienced as a result of Covid-19.
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