AMID the panic caused by the outbreak of coronavirus across the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against social stigma and discriminatory behaviour against people perceived to have been in contact with the virus.
In a document mailed to The Indian Express in response to a query, the WHO said that the stigma can prompt social isolation of people, and that may contribute to a situation where the virus is more likely to spread and eventually lead to difficulties in controlling the outbreak.
“How we communicate about the COVID-19 is critical in supporting people to take effective action to help combat the disease and to avoid fuelling fear and stigma. An environment needs to be created in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively,” the document read.
The WHO has said that the use of words like “suspected case” or “victims” should be avoided. “Using criminalising or dehumanising terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, potentially fuelling wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening, testing and quarantine,” the document said.
It advised that the terms like “people who may have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19”, “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are recovering from COVID-19” and “people who died after contracting COVID-19” should be used.
With regard to the spread of the disease, it has been recommended that words like “acquiring” or “contracting” should be used instead of saying that people are “transmitting COVID-9” or “infecting others” or “spreading the virus”.
A person quarantined in a house in Chandigarh with his family explained how such terminology can be a traumatic experience for people potentially exposed to the virus. “We were aggressively shouted at and told not to leave the house. A whole team of policemen came to the house and threatened us, instead of providing us with necessary information to deal with the quarantine,” said the individual, adding that since they were not given information on how to source supplies while they are quarantined, they have been sneaking in supplies through their friends, “making them feel like they are involved in some illicit operation”.
An “overly” focus on individual behaviour and patient’s responsibility of “having spread and spreading COVID-19” can increase the stigma, the WHO said, while advising the media outlets to not focus on speculating the “patient zero” in each county.
“An ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and rumours is spreading more quickly than the current outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). This contributes to negative effects including stigmatisation and discrimination of people from areas affected by the outbreak,” said the document, which has been released as a guide to prevent social stigma.
The WHO also said that social media is a useful tool for reaching out to a large number of people with health information, but warned that stigma can be heightened by insufficient knowledge about how the COVID-19 is transmitted and treated, and how to prevent the infection.
“Engaging social influencers such as religious leaders on prompting reflection about people who are stigmatised and how to support them, or respected celebrities to amplify messages that reduce stigma. The information should be well targeted and the celebrities who are asked to communicate this information should be personally engaged, and geographically and culturally appropriate to the audiences they seek to influence,” read the document.
It also recommended amplifying the voices, stories and images of local people who have experienced the COVID-19 and have recovered from it or even supported anyone through recovery. “Also, implementing a ‘hero’ campaign honouring caretakers and healthcare workers who may be stigmatised. Community workers also play a great role in reducing stigma in communities,” the WHO document said.
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