You may have read or heard the joke about how “In 2020 one can’t cough without people thinking he/she has the Corona Virus.” You may have been in a situation where you held back on coughing in the company of others, or where you found yourself explaining the cause of your cough in order to avoid killer stares or people moving away from you in fear of “infection”. In my family every cough or sneeze is met with a resounding chorus of “CORONA!!” As light hearted as these situations are, they give a glimpse of the stigma attached to COVID-19.
But it doesn’t end there, when one has contracted the virus, they feel ashamed of their status, perhaps ashamed for having let their guard down in some way. They feel like they are now a danger to society. The shame becomes heightened when its combined with fear, where one becomes scared to contact people they had direct contact with in fear of stigmatisation, being ostracised and/or being made to feel like a criminal.
Where the stigma becomes very dangerous though, is when it leads to infected people not disclosing their status, not informing their close contacts, not taking the time off for isolation, continuing with their work and daily interactions and truly becoming a danger to society.
The stigma is brought on by the:
The stigma behind the virus is unkind and dangerous and it adds to the mental anguish of the infected person. It can lead to people not testing even when they experience symptoms associated with the virus or are sick. This will have the unwanted result of infected people not receiving the required early medical interventions and not self-isolating as required, which then puts others at risk of infection. The other consequence of stigma is that it can hamper the actions required to curb the spread of the virus such as the sanitising and disinfection of contact areas and contact tracing.
How do we combat the stigma? We need to realise that with South Africa currently ranking 5th in the world in total number of COVID cases and experiencing a growing number of infection rates, there is no failsafe way to avoid infection, therefore judging people for contracting a virus is counter-productive and mean-spirited. Blaming and accusing people who get infected, needs to stop.
We all need to act responsibly in regard to the measures for combating the spread of the virus:
We all have a responsibility to treat each other with respect and empathy, while not placing additional mental, physical or emotional burdens to an already precarious environment. Doing so could mean saving your life and that of your colleagues.
This article contains information from Dr Sheri Fanaroff and Dr Karin van der Merwe of the Gauteng General Practitioners Collaboration