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 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’.
It is understandable that there is confusion, anxiety, and fear among the public. Unfortunately, these factors are also fueling harmful stereotypes.
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.
HOW TO ADDRESS SOCIAL STIGMA
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 fuelling 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.
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.
Unicef recommends a ‘people- first’ language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels.