It is well known that stigma has played a significant role in deepening the suffering of people affected by any major infectious disease epidemic – whether it be HIV, Ebola, Hansen’s Disease or Mental Health conditions. Fear and anxiety about a novel disease such as the Coronavirus has also resulted in social stigma targeted towards people of specific ethnicities and professions or those who have had a history of travel.
Apart from causing emotional and mental distress to a person who is potentially infected, it becomes a major barrier to testing and seeking treatment. This is due to a fear of being subjected to social rejection, physical violence and denial of essential services such as medical care, housing or employment.
What is likely to work:
A common stigma-reduction strategy is building contact – that is facilitating interaction between the public and a person in the stigmatised condition.
Evidence suggests that people are more likely to hold stigmatising attitudes when they don’t perceive that they know anyone who has been infected. The lack of meaningful contact with those who have stigmatised conditions results in discomfort, distrust and fear. Contact interventions aim to overcome this interpersonal divide and facilitate positive interaction and connection between these groups.
Interventions which involve people who have been infected and/or recovered from infection could help overcome this by humanising the experience and make it more relatable – thus increase empathy and reduce the separation between the two groups.
Some ways to design this intervention:
Promote first person accounts of people who have been infected / recovered from infection that cover both a) The process of being diagnosed and the fear it entailed, worries about infecting others, and challenges of symptoms b) The reality of recovery; disappearance of symptoms and return to normal routine.
Leverage national / international public figures as well as community influencers who have contracted the infection to openly speak about their experience. This helps dismiss myths about specific ethnicities, professions etc. being more susceptible and reduces distance to the stigmatised group.
Run interventions during & after the end of a pandemic: a) Use virtual platforms during a pandemic, to promote first person accounts on blogs/vlogs, social networks and interactive live streams. b) Move this to face-to-face meetings after the end of a pandemic, to tackle any lingering effects of stigmatising attitudes towards COVID positive people.
What is missing / What may not work:
While public figures have significant influence and large scale reach, they may also alienate an audience due to their celebrity status. Hence, this intervention may need to be executed not just at an international & national level but also at a community level. Involving influencers from within the community who are similar to the target audience makes it more relatable to an average person.
Who would this be most useful to:
Government & Policy Makers
Public Health Experts & Healthcare Service Providers
Can be implemented at the following levels:
Governmental / Structural
Organisational / Institutional
Media Platforms & Social Networks, Civil Society Organisations
Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson talk about their COVID experience:
P!nk talks to Ellen DeGeneres about Contracting COVID-19: