As the novel coronavirus pandemic hits, we are seeing the harmful and abusive impact of stigma on both patients and health workers. This is worsened by the rise in fake news and ease with which misinformation is spread. When such information is received without being questioned, it is dangerous.
In the age of information technology, it has become easy to develop and share content without referencing the source of such information or justifying the conclusions drawn. It is therefore easy to build a narrative not based on facts. When such information is received without being questioned, it is dangerous.
Time and time again we see how fear, misinformation, othering, and isolation of people with disease have led to their stigmatisation which has hampered efforts to treat and prevent the spread of disease.
The stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS presented a massive stumbling block for patients and health workers in Southern Africa. Ordinary people who contracted HIV/AIDs were shamed and marginalised through forms of gossip and social isolation. They were verbally abused, physically attacked, and denied services. This stigma is a heavy burden to bear for people who were already traumatised by diagnosis and fear of what was then a new disease.
In South Africa there have been reports of nurses being physically removed from public transport by members of the public who viewed the nurses as carriers of the coronavirus.
Health workers struggled to encourage people to get tested, to listen to correct information and to treat and counsel people who were in denial after testing positive.
In workplaces, employers discriminated against people who were HIV positive by refusing employment or firing them from work. Today, a lot has changed as the fear of HIV/AIDs as a new disease has lessened, and as advances in treatment ensures that HIV positive people can live healthy lives until old age. But that does not mean that everyone is able to disclose their status without fear of facing prejudice. We still have work to do to stop the stigma.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic hits Southern Africa, we are once again seeing the harmful and abusive impact of stigma on both patients and health workers. This is worsened by the rise in fake news and ease with which misinformation is spread. And this is having dangerous real-life effects.
In South Africa there have been reports of nurses being physically removed from public transport by members of the public who viewed the nurses as carriers of the coronavirus. There have also been reports of community health workers in Mpumalanga who have been accused of spreading the virus while trying to test people for COVID-19, and we have seen negative sentiments being expressed against people who have contracted COVID-19.
Being infected with a disease with COVID-19 is not a choice, and certainly not something that should be apportioned blame. Instead we should see it as a pandemic that requires a fundamental change in our society. We have a crisis upon a crisis.
Our existing crisis is a socioeconomic one where people live in chronic poverty without access to quality public services such as healthcare, water, sanitation, nutrition and electricity. This crisis is now compounded by a public health crisis as a result of the pandemic. This has increased and worsened our existing crisis.
We must expect that many people will contract the virus even if they have physically distanced and washed their hands religiously, and that a majority of infected people are expected to fully recover. Some of those who may contract the virus will be health and essential service workers who are risking infection at work daily to keep our societies functional.
In addressing the social discrimination, we also condemn discrimination against migrant populations and call for migrants to have equal access to public services. It is very worrying to hear reports of food parcels being denied to migrant communities.
While this virus may have started in China, collective punishment, prejudice and racism against Asian people is unacceptable. We therefore condemn any discrimination against Asian people and businesses on the basis that the outbreak began in China.
Equally, we are concerned about reports of discrimination against African people in the Chinese city of Guangzhou as fears of reinfections are blamed on African migrants. This has led to migrants being forced to undergo testing, forcibly placed under quarantine, being removed from hotels, and not allowed entry to shops and public spaces.
All forms of discrimination are unacceptable, and the virus has proven to show no care for nationality, race, class, status or religion. It is for this reason, that PSI continues to stress the need for accurate information to avoid the occurrence of such senseless acts of prejudice which are a result of misinformation.
Instead of stigma, we need understanding, patience, kindness and most importantly, proactive leadership and unity. In this respect, we call for the following:
Support mechanisms to be put in place for those in self-isolation and quarantine. This means that such people must be regularly checked up on, and grocery and essential items be brought to them.
Strong leadership at all government levels which involves the public in its decision-making process, and answers people’s questions about COVID-19. This includes information on testing and contact tracing. This reduces fear and enables buy-in and support of government COVID-19 response mechanisms.
A state-led public awareness campaign that provides accurate information about COVID-19 and in so doing automatically combats fake news and myths.
Approaching the lockdown as a public health crisis that requires constant awareness raising and not by repressive enforcement of lockdown measures put in place. Police violence must end as too many people have already lost their lives.
Care is given to ensure the elderly, disabled, children, victims of abuse, migrants etc are taken care of and not abandoned or othered.