It has been seven months since Nepal reported the first case of COVID-19. With the growing number of virus and deaths caused by it, the country also witnessed rising incidents of stigma meted out to COVID-19 patients, doctors and returnee migrant workers, among others.
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. During the outbreak of pandemic, people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated separately 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.
The current COVID-19 outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people including health workers, as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus-infected people. Even those who have recovered from COVID-19 face such discrimination. In Nepal, incidents of social stigma have been reported from Chitwan, Sindhuli, Kathmandu and Dang districts in which health care professionals have been forced to leave their rented houses due to their profession.
There are some factors such as anxiety, fear, confusion, and uncertainty which fuel social stigma and stereotypes among other groups of people. Anxiety caused by lockdowns, mystery around COVID-19 and the fear of being infected has given rise to stigma in local communities. People’s uncertainty and anxiety have led them to believe biased and misleading information spread by particularly social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Stigma can make people feel isolated and even abandoned. They may feel depressed, hurt, and angry when friends and others in their community avoid them for fear of getting COVID-19. This can result in more severe health problems and difficulty in controlling the disease outbreak. Stigma can drive people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination, prevent them from seeking health care immediately and adopting healthy behaviours.
Stigma can be heightened by insufficient knowledge about how the new coronavirus disease is transmitted and treated, and how to prevent infection. To overcome this, sharing facts, not fear, will stop the spread of novel coronavirus. We must share only the authentic information available on the website of the Ministry of Health and Population and the World Health Organisation. Also, we should cross-check any information related to COVID-19 from reliable sources before forwarding any messages in social media.
Likewise, we must support health care workers and others who are caring for people with COVID-19 while appreciating their work and sharing positive messages through social media. Police officers, bus drivers, cleaners and other essential service workers need our full support and we must thank all who continue their essential jobs to help us and our community. Showing compassion to the infected persons helps minimise the negative impacts of stigma. People who are sick with the coronavirus have done nothing wrong; so let’s not treat them differently. If anybody catches the infection, it is not their fault. When the patients and their family members are in distress, they need love, encouragement and cooperation.
While the governments and frontline workers are doing their best in tackling this emergency, everyone should contribute on their part to spread kindness, solidarity and support. We have to be supportive and empathetic to them, not only because it could happen to anyone but because we are part of a huge single-family called humankind.
Once we acquire the knowledge and factual information about COVID-19, raising awareness programme will be very effective to combat stigma. Social media will be the best platform where likeminded people can conduct the campaign. #spreadlove, a campaign initiated by Unicef Nepal, is the best example of a social media campaign against COVID-19 related stigma.
The COVID-19 pandemic will be over sooner if fears and rumours are replaced by facts, proper action, and a show of support for one another. Let’s fight the virus, not the human.
(Thapa did his MBA from the University of Wales, UK.)