LET US see the pandemic as a journey that requires planning and coordination to deal with coronavirus rather than “stigmatising” language and using corona war metaphors, said Dr Soumitra Pathare, director of mental health, law and policy at ILS, Pune, who had contributed to the mental health policy of World Health Organization (WHO).
At a webinar organised by Department of Biotechnology/Wellcome Trust Alliance, Dr Pathare spoke on the ‘Role of language during a pandemic’, where he discussed the use of war metaphors for outbreaks, and on the kind of stigmatising language that needed to be avoided.
“Hashtags like ‘corona warriors’, ‘corona fighters’, ‘corona war’ are all trending lately. But this isn’t new. We’ve seen similar metaphors being used while communicating about cancer and HIV in the past. I’m sure there are lots of merits. They might galvanise the society to put up with hardship when in a pandemic-like situation,” Dr Pathare said.
He, however, said once the outbreak is called war, and health workers warriors, you also expect them to behave like soldiers, which means they must display stoicism. For example, healthcare workers, doctors, nurses and ASHA workers should not complain about lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) or poor working conditions in hospitals they worked in, he said.
He also said like soldiers, healthcare workers should not be speaking to the media and are expected to quietly go about their work and not identify or raise problems.
A certain amount of collateral damage is being seen as “acceptable” as the war metaphor broke down global solidarity, which we really need, he said.
He added that we hear expressions like “Chinese virus”, which then snowballed into countries fighting each other, pointing out the attacks on WHO, which is the kind of fallout that stems from this notion of war, and when one or other country is designated an enemy.
Dr Pathare said there is a problem with the use of terms such as “corona suspects”, as it leads to criminalisation. When you do that, it also justifies the language of violence — verbal or physical – that could create fear and panic, he added.
“The messaging usually is do not step out or you might fall sick. Titrating the message is always difficult, resulting in too much fear that, in turn, leads to panic. If you look at our past experience, say with the HIV epidemic, we have learnt that appeals to fear don’t work. One of the things that fear does is that people stop coming for testing early or they start preventing healthcare workers from visiting their homes while they are tracing contacts,” Dr Pathare said.
“I think fundamentally, as the German president said the other day, the pandemic is a test of our humanity. I think we need to really succeed at that test you know; there are many other tests but we can’t afford to fail the test of humanity,” he added.
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