The pace of reducing stigma associated with HIV may not have been quick enough. The question is, will the COVID-19 stigma catch up?
What aspect of the coronavirus news do you keep up with? Is it the coronavirus live update, global statistics, recovery data, search for a cure, or what? Although it is probably not in everyone’s radar, COVID-19 stigmatization is another aspect we need to consider. It is silently becoming a problem in addition to the pandemic itself. It may not be in the front line of various media stations or newspapers. However, it certainly is a thing. Currently, the level of stigmatization being associated with COVID-19 is outrageous. It is almost impossible to listen to a patient recovery story without hearing of stigmatization of COVID-19 patients. It makes me question what practical measures we will uphold to help in reducing stigma during COVID-19.
What is Stigma?
Stigma refers to the discrimination of a particular group of people associated with a specific health condition. Usually, the stigma arises because of various reasons. First and foremost, it is because people lack knowledge of how the disease spreads. I have been keeping up with the coronavirus updates. I must concur with the fact that people still do not know how it spreads. Thus, they tend to develop various misconceptions, thereby linking the disease with a particular group of people.
Stigma also arises when people spread rumors and myths about the disease. For example, you may find people spreading rumors like coronavirus only affects people in a specific age group. As a result, individuals in another age group may keep away. This is a form of discrimination and stigmatization. Stigma may also arise in cases when people fear death and need to blame someone for the disease. For example, we know the first case was reported in Wuhan. Hence, you may find people discriminating against individuals who come from or have ties to this region.
Is Corona Virus Related Stigmatization a Thing?
Before I answer this question, let me describe two scenarios to shed light on this matter. They may also help you answer this question even before I do.
Recently, I read an article where a family lost their loved one to COVID-19. Since then, they became the black sheep of their community. The article further disclosed that the family members hardly got any condolences from their so-called friends and neighbors. People automatically distanced themselves from this family following this incident. So, if you think that COVID-19 related stigmatization is not real, think again.
I was online and came across videos of COVID-19 patients sharing their experience and recovery journeys. I thought this was very good. It would help individuals not take this matter lightly. To my surprise, other people felt otherwise. Some people associated the disease with the patients’ ethnicity. The comments went further to ‘warn’ people to stay away from people of this race.
I was so disappointed in the human race because it only depicted ignorance. I mean, we have people of different races and ethnic groups getting, and even some succumbing to coronavirus. Thus, the thought of associating one ethnic group with this disease is blatant stigmatization. If you ask me if stigmatization arising from coronavirus is a thing, I will, unfortunately, say yes.
The Problem with Stigmatization
Nobody wants to feel like an outcast, especially for something they did not sign up for or ask for. Therefore, when such people are discriminated against and suddenly feel unloved, many things crisscross in their minds. In most cases, individuals who discriminate against the victims do not consider their feelings. In their case, the stigmatization is a way of ‘protecting’ themselves by keeping away. This is not the right way to protect oneself.
A discriminated patient may first refuse to seek medical attention. Feeling unloved, and avoided by close people may lead them to believe that the health personnel will reject them. The problem with not seeking attention is that the disease spreads rapidly and may lead to death. The victim may also avoid practicing healthy or safety behaviors. For example, if people with COVID-19 have been advised to stay in quarantine, you may find one not doing so. In such a case, it is because they feel alone, and thus, not worth fighting to overcome it. Do you think we need to panic after reading this? Well, get more insight from this piece: Pandemic Fear! Should We Panic?
HIV-Related Stigma: Are We Moving Backwards?
HIV/AIDS is one disease that has proven stigmatization to be quite prevalent in our society. Since its discovery, people have spread multiple, to say, but the least myths and misconceptions. It perhaps might explain why HIV-related stigmatization is quite high. The manifestations of stigma have occurred at multiple levels and in several forms. Stigmatization has occurred and, honestly, continues to occur in schools, work settings, health facilities, and other places. It could be in the form of verbal abuse, isolation, ridicule, or denial of various services and employment posts. I bet you have heard, or read about HIV positive people facing stigma in any of these forms. It makes me pose the question, ‘Are we moving backward when it comes to uprooting stigmatization and discrimination?’ Well, you tell me.
Where Are We Now in Reducing Stigma of HIV?
It is quite sickening that we still have a lot to do to uproot the stigmatization roots in our societies. The stigmatization of HIV/AIDs has led to the social stigma of, particularly marginalized groups. I am talking about the LGBTQ+ community, drug users, sex workers; you name them. You can hardly raise a topic about the LGBTQ+ or sex workers without someone somewhere associating them to HIV. What are we doing, people? We are only moving in circles and getting nowhere. So, forgive me if I say that are far away from doing away with social stigma.
The unfortunate thing is that a few substantial stigma interventions have been set in place all over the world. For example, we have the pride LGBT month set aside in America. It helps support and create awareness of the LGBTQ+ community. People get insight that helps eliminate any rumors and myths that may create stigmatization. The question is, do people ever listen, or do they assume what they know is right? What I can ascertain is that people nowadays are paying attention to these interventions. Therefore, they are more aware of how they can avoid and eliminate stigmatization of such marginalized groups. It is safe to say that we are on the right path when it comes to reducing stigma associated with HIV.
Reducing Stigma of HIV: What Can We Learn?
Trying to reduce the stigma of HIV has been a continuous journey. It has not been the easiest, either the smoothest, but it has some positive results. The few rigorous stigma-reduction interventions put in place have been beneficial. Here are lessons we can uphold to help in reducing stigma and discrimination of COVID-19.
The first lesson is that creating awareness of the disease goes a long way. Last year my friend recommended I watch a soap opera by the name of ‘Sexto Sentido.’ Knowing my friend, I was 1000% sure it was filled with betrayal, love triangles, you name them. However, I did my research on the series, and shock on me. It was one of the strategies used by the youth in Nicaragua to help break the stigmatization surrounding HIV. It had a great audience and I believe people learnt one or two things from it. I, too, believe that creating awareness about COVID-19 can help reduce the stigma. People will have no assumptions about the disease and, therefore, no stigma, inequality, or discrimination.
The second thing we can learn about reducing stigma is that inclusive participation is crucial. For the HIV anti-stigmatization interventions to work, they had to include the HIV positive people in them. For example, in creating awareness forums. It is the same case with coronavirus. Do not ridicule and fire an employee because they have tested for COVID-19. Instead, urge them to stay at home or in quarantine. Then, maintain contact through platforms such as Zoom meetings and Skype. It is essential to involve them in decision making. Participation empowers and motivates them to fight the disease and return to serving the community.
How Stigmatization May Play Out in 2021 and the Years Later
Detecting patterns is one of the most fundamental ways individuals learn, decide, and change their behaviors. Now, we know what stigmatization looked like years back, why, and how it spread. We also know what is happening right now to show us that there is indeed stigmatization. Using this pattern, we can somehow visualize how stigmatization will play out in 2021 and the following years. It may also tell us various strategies that can help in reducing stigma.
Looking at the coronavirus update, it is clear that it is here to stay, and perhaps in its first phase. Countries like America, South Africa, and Brazil continue to rank among the countries where COVID-19 is spreading fast. Thus, if there is stigmatization associated with this disease in these countries, it means that it too, it’s at its peak. Therefore, we can expect social stigma in different forms in 2021 and the following years. This is in case we do not address this issue now.
Typically, social stigma arising from some diseases has come to an end after a cure has been found. In our case, we still do not have a coronavirus cure or vaccine. Epidemiologists and medical researchers have been on their toes looking for a cure to coronavirus. The cure may help people reduce social stigma, especially if they do it out of fear of a lack of a cure. However, some people still discriminate against a group of people, even if there is a vaccine or cure. Therefore, it is up to various CBO’s and health forums to create awareness on stigmatization and its impact. It could help us put an end to this menace once and for all. You can also read this piece to see how life after COVID-19 may play out: Life After Health Issues Like COVID19
Let me say that the future of stigmatization related to COVID-19 depends on numerous unknowns. For example, it depends on people’s ability to overlook cultural or ethnic discrimination and stigmatization. It also depends on the worth of technology in creating awareness of COVID-19 to help reduce social stigma. Until we can address stigmatization as a rampant issue in society, it will continue to magnify in cases like this pandemic. Therefore, let us put an end to stigmatization and discrimination once and for all.
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