The Importance of addressing stigma
Addressing stigma in a public health crisis such as Covid-19 is crucial, as if left unaddressed stigma drive people to deny or hide the illness to avoid discrimination, to prevent or delay timely health care seeking, and can discourage people from adopting healthy behaviours and following guidance for management of the illness due to unwillingness to be associated with the condition. Such barriers could contribute to more severe health problems, and greater difficulties in controlling the viral disease outbreak. Stigma and discrimination often also affect the mental health of stigmatised people, which may worsen these negative outcomes.
A recent paper by our research group with international colleagues reflects on these adverse consequences of stigma and discrimination related to Covid-19, and critically how these negative impacts can be anticipated and mitigated.
Our team set out to review evidence at the onset of the pandemic to develop recommendations for strategies and interventions to reduce stigma and discrimination related to Covid-19. We concluded with the following recommendations:
- A careful focus is needed on language and words used to refer to Covid-19 and people affected by it. For example, not attaching locations or ethnicity to the disease, not referring to people with Covid-19 as “victims” or “suspects”; not using exaggerated language or metaphors, such as “plague” or “apocalypse”; and not using words that could imply intentional transmission or blame.
- The role of media and journalists needs to be recognised in shaping public perceptions around disease, ensuring media platforms take responsibility to use accurate sources of information, challenge inaccurate beliefs, and reduce prejudice against people affected by Covid-19.
- Public stigma-reducing interventions are needed for the general population, e.g. campaigns to correct myths, rumours and stereotypes, and to challenge bias. These should go further than merely providing factual knowledge, but also include efforts to strategically challenge and change public perceptions about who is responsible for the outbreak, while also correcting specific public misconceptions.
- Targeted anti-stigma programmes are needed for people directly affected by Covid-19, their family members, healthcare and frontline workers, and vulnerable populations who are at high risk of exposure to stigma and at high risk of contracting Covid-19.
- Local communities and key stakeholders need to be involved in contextualising messages of anti-stigma initiatives using local knowledge, using the voices and images of the community and involving people affected by Covid-19. Interventions should be designed and delivered in consultation with local organisations and community leaders to build trust, foster community resilience and bring legitimacy to activities designed to reduce stigma.
Our work provides the first evidence-based guidance on stigma and discrimination reduction in relation to Covid-19. Reducing stigma in relation to COVID-19 will not only reduce distress and negative experiences in the short term, but ultimately reducing stigma helps addressing structural inequalities that drive marginalisation and exacerbate both health risks and the impact of stigma.
Reducing stigma and discrimination associated with COVID-19: early stage pandemic rapid review and practical recommendations (P. C. Gronholm, M. Nosé, W. H. van Brakel, J. Eaton, B. Ebenso, K. Fiekert, M. Milenova, C. Sunkel, C. Barbui, and G. Thornicroft) was published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences
For further information, please contact Patrick O’Brien (Senior Media Officer)