Expert tips: How to deal with the stigma around COVID-19 infection

The stigma attached to a disease can make containing, treating and eradicating said disease even more difficult.

Myupchar April 10, 2020 10:15:41 IST
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Expert tips: How to deal with the stigma around COVID-19 infection

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has generated a huge amount of fear and anxiety all over the world. With a disease this new, over 1.5 million infected and many more than that at risk, feelings of fear and anxiety are natural. 

Most people are worried about getting infected themselves, and have the same fears for the health of their families and loved ones too. Add to this the economic and social anxiety people might be experiencing due to the lockdown currently in place in India (and several other nations) and fear, stress and anxiety become natural byproducts.

Expert tips How to deal with the stigma around COVID19 infection

Representational image. Image by Наркологическая Клиника from Pixabay.

“Some amount of that fear is natural,” says Dr Samir Parikh, an eminent psychiatrist and the Director of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare. “What is important is how you handle it. One way to handle the fear is that you take all possible precautions - if you use social distancing, if you use proper sanitisation methods and hygiene, then you are on track. But if you allow that fear to turn into discriminating behaviour then that’s a problem.”

Fear, anxiety and the rise of stigma

The problem here lies with the undesirable effects of fear and anxiety, of which, stigma is the worst type. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stigma in the health context is the negative association between a disease and an individual or a group of people who suffer from the disease or are linked to it. 

Stigma, when associated with an outbreak, epidemic or pandemic due to an infectious disease, can have huge repercussions. This has been previously observed in the case of diseases like venereal diseases, leprosy, tuberculosis and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The stigma attached to a disease can make containing, treating and eradicating said disease even more difficult, and the brunt of this stigma is faced by patients, caregivers, healthcare workers and their families. 

Is the stigma around COVID-19 on the rise?

COVID-19 is a highly contagious infectious disease and stigma around this disease seems to be on the rise already in India. Because COVID-19 first appeared in China and since some people from Northeastern states of India may share some physical features with the Chinese - people from these states were assumed to be “infected” and “spreaders” of COVID-19. Reports of people from the seven sisters being harassed started coming out in March 2020.

More disturbingly still, cases of healthcare professionals being harassed in cities like Bareilly and Surat have also come up recently. “I think that’s very unfortunate. Society needs to understand that frontline workers, the healthcare and paramedical staff are doing a great service to mankind at huge personal risk,” Dr Parikh explained. “We need to find some empathy and should feel an immense sense of gratitude towards them.”

How to fight stigma in the times of COVID-19

Dr Parikh opines that while fear of a disease is understandable, this fear turning into discriminatory behaviour and stigmatization is not. If you observe somebody around you engaging in such behaviour it’s your responsibility to stop them, remind them that this behaviour is not fine, and explain to them how they can positively contribute to stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

The best way to stop the spread is, of course, to regularly and rigorously follow all the preventive measures: physical distancing, handwashing with soap, practising respiratory hygiene, staying at home and stepping out only for absolute essentials, and calling emergency health services if you observe any symptoms of COVID-19. 

Educating people about the disease and early detection and care, Dr Parikh insists, is the best way to move forward. But that’s not all the general population can do to stop the spread of both COVID-19 and stigma attached to it. “I would also insist that we share stories of positive behaviour from people,” Dr Parikh says. 

He explains how the contribution of social role models, influencers and the media can make a huge impact here. “All of these people need to keep talking about the good work healthcare workers are doing so that people realise the importance of their role,” he adds. Celebrating the positive aspects and contributions of people across the world — healthcare workers, essential service providers, people who have recovered, communities which are coming together (virtually) to fight the COVID-19 infection — during this unprecedented and global public health emergency is one of the best methods of diluting the negativity right now.

“You can’t take away negativity only by explaining what the disease does,” Dr Parikh reiterates. “You can take away negativity by bombarding it with positivity.”

For more information, read our article on COVID-19 and Stigma.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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