COVID-19 kills but stigma kills more

BY: Mabel Delassie Awuku

“The disease called STIGMA must be treated if we indeed want to see COVID-19 take a bow of defeat”.

The unusual knock on my door that I deem too early in a morning to expect a visitor saw my nurse friend, Megan, who works in one of the treatment centers for COVID-19 patients, in tears. Before I could ask reasons behind the tears, she said “Mabel, I have been ejected from my home because I work at the hospital and so, I am seen as a potential COVID-19 carrier, can you host me please, just a place to lay my head”.

Fear run through my being knowing very well I had children at home and would be risking their lives but could not also watch a friend stranded because of COVID-19, hence took the risk but strictly observing the preventive protocols.

I ask that, with such harsh tendencies, do you expect a positive COVID-19 person to share his or her status or present themselves for treatment?
This is the devil we have to deal with to reduce prevention, encourage walk-in testing, talk freely about our exposures without the fear of being stigmatized and as well share our experiences as a people to help support others to thrive in this rather abnormal time.

Understanding stigma

Per varied definitions, Stigma has been known as a social construction whereby a distinguishing mark of social disgrace is attached to others in order to identify and to devalue them. Thus, stigma and the process of stigmatization consist of two fundamental elements: - the recognition of the differentiating 'mark' and the subsequent devaluation of the person.

When a person is labelled by their illness, they are no longer seen as family or neighbors but as part of a stereotyped group. The social disapprovals and discriminations against persons based on perceivable social characteristics serves to distinguish these persons from other members of a society. These can be commonly related to culture, gender, race, intelligence, and health.

According to the WHO, Stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion which affects people‘s self-esteem, helps disrupt their family relationships and limits their ability to socialize and obtain housing and jobs. It hampers the prevention of health disorders, promotion of well-being and the provision of effective treatment and care and as well contributes to the abuse of human rights. Several studies show that, stigma usually arises from lack of awareness, education, perception, and the nature and complications of the all forms of illnesses such as mental health, HIV and AIDS and of recent times the Novel Corona Virus.

Stigma affects people in several ways and these includes the feeling of shame, blame, hopelessness, distress, secrecy, loneliness, isolation and social exclusion, stereotyping and derogatory labels, misrepresentation in the media, being treated differently than the rest of society, discrimination in housing, employment or other services.

Stigma worsens a person’s illness and can lead to a reluctance to seek and/or accept necessary help. Families are also affected by stigma, leading to a lack of disclosure and support. For COVID-19 health professionals, stigma means, they are seen as potential danger in the spread of the virus and therefore mostly treated with horror especially, considering the number of infectious doctors across the world and the accompanied deaths of health workers.

Best practices 

Community wide social campaigns, most often through social media to shift public attitudes regarding stigma is necessary as it may involve people with experience shared to largely minimize stigma. There are many simple ways everyone can help to reduce prejudice and discrimination towards people with the COVID experience.

We should learn and share the facts about the disease and get to know people with personal experiences, speak up when friends, family, colleagues put out the wrong attitudes towards people diagnosed or otherwise treated from the disease. The media should desist from using languages and/or misinformation that perpetuates false beliefs and negative stereotypes. Support to people when they are unwell should be offered and as much as practicable, avoid labelling or judging people by their illness. People must be treated with respect and dignity, as you would do to anyone else and avoid all forms of discriminatory conduct against such when it comes to participation, housing and employment before, during and after the COVID-19.

We must encourage people to openly talk about their experiences as another healthy way to drum home the point that it is not shameful to have contracted the disease or recovered from it.

Role of govt

Governments govern people and without such people, there is nothing to govern hence, the health facilities and isolation centers, drugs and facilities that will facilitate the survival of the infected persons must form the paramount interest of government. These they can do by empowering the health centers with logistical supports, cash, drugs and adequate incentive needed to keep people alive and recovering. Strict compliance/ adherence by government officials on the preventive protocols stands tall since we must strive to lead by example.

There should indeed be a glimmer of hope for all, if we strive to put out the right attitudes in order to make the COVID-19 fight worth fighting.

The writer is a staff of the Information Services Department (ISD)