The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 gave rise to fear and anxiety within our communities. As such, this caused an escalation of social stigma and discrimination against certain groups of people and places.
What is social stigma and the impact it can have?
Social stigma is the negative association and treatment of a person or group on the grounds of a particular characteristic that distinguishes them from other members of society(1).
The level of stigma associated with COVID-19 came from the fact that the virus was new and that there were many unknown factors as to how it came about, and how it spreads initially. The unknown sparked fear, confusion and anxiety among the public and as such, these factors elicited social stigma and discriminatory behaviour against people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus. (Read: Some Chinese workers, businesses in Singapore shunned amid fear and anxiety over Covid-19 and Discrimination of healthcare workers due to coronavirus ‘disgraceful’: Amrin Amin)
Discrimination can erode the social cohesion of our communities and cause certain groups of people to be ostracized. This can cause the virus to spread further as people might be prompted to hide their illnesses and refrain from seeking healthcare in fear of being discriminated against.
What can we do to help amid this state of panic?
Even with more information being established about the virus and how it is transmitted, the social stigma present within our communities has not dissipated entirely. Hence, it is important for all of us to do our part and help fight the virus as well as this stigma. Here are some steps we can take to counter stigma during this period of time:
1. Maintain the privacy and confidentiality of those who are seeking healthcare and/or who are part of any contact investigation.
If you are aware of anyone who is seeking treatment for the disease, it is important to maintain patient confidentiality and privacy so that discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups does not occur. Allow the relevant authorities to take charge of contact-tracing and to enforce regulations.
2. Stop fake news from spreading. Share only verified information about COVID-19.
The threat of fake news has always been present and it is more prevalent now in this state of uncertainty. The internet is a dominant source of information for many and with ready access to an overload of information, it can sometimes do more harm than good. Inaccurate knowledge of the disease can further exacerbate stigma. It is always better to double-check with reliable and official channels before sharing any news.
3. Speak out against negative behaviours that could encourage the stigmatisation of groups of people.
Call out any negative behaviours that could cause misconceptions, rumours and misinformation about COVID-19 against any individuals and/or communities. Misinformation can spread like wildfire and hence, it is key for us to correct these misconceptions as early as we can.
4. Show our appreciation to healthcare workers and responders who have been at the front-line in the battle against COVID-19.
Since the start of the pandemic, our frontline healthcare workers and responders have stepped up bravely in the fight against the virus. From working long hours to sacrificing personal time with their own families, their lives have been upended by the pandemic. Instead of shunning them, we should recognise their contributions and show our gratitude to them for their time, effort, and dedication to the cause.
Here are some links to platforms where you are able to show your appreciation to our healthcare workers:
How we communicate about the virus is not only critical in combating stigma, but it is also important in supporting people to take effective action to combat this disease. We all have a part to play in creating an environment where we are able to discuss and address issues about COVID-19 and its impact openly and effectively(2). Let us fight the virus, not the people!
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(1) Definition of Social Stigma: https://www.yourdictionary.com/social-stigma
(2) Social Stigma associated with COVID-19: https://www.unicef.org/media/65931/file/Social%20stigma%20associated%20with%20the%20coronavirus%20disease%202019%20(COVID-19).pdf