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Social Stigma & COVID-19

Social stigma in the context of physical and mental health occurs when there is a negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. Social stigma often results from fear and uncertainty about things that are not fully understood, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The mass of information flowing through social media and other media networks about COVID-19 can create misconceptions about the disease, where it originated from, or how it spreads. These misconceptions can result in the labelling, stereotyping, discrimination, or prejudicial treatment of certain groups of people, places, or things.

What does social stigma look like during COVID-19?

Social stigma is especially common in disease outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The current situation has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours towards people of certain ethnic backgrounds and anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus. This may appear through the following ways:

  • Attaching COVID-19 to a specific nationality, ethnicity, or geographic location, even though not everyone in these populations is specifically at risk for the disease
  • Blaming a person or group of people who may have the virus for “being careless and spreading the illness”
  • Socially avoiding or rejecting persons released from COVID-19 quarantines, even though they are no longer considered a risk for spreading the disease to others
  • Avoiding local places associated with myths about the virus, such as take-out restaurants or grocers owned by people from specific nationalities or ethnicities
  • Socially avoiding or rejecting individuals that work in healthcare settings, first responder fields, or other essential workplaces due to fear about COVID-19.

The Impacts of Social Stigma

Stigma has several harmful effects on everyone in the community by creating fear and anger towards other people. Targeted groups are particularly at risk of experiencing these harmful effects, which can further impact the wider community. These impacts include the following:

  • Stigmatized groups may feel guilty, shameful, or bad about themselves if they have the virus
  • Stigmatized groups may socially isolate themselves to avoid poor treatment or discrimination
  • People may be less likely to get tested or seek treatment if they fear they will face discrimination
  • People who have, or suspect that they have, COVID-19 may avoid quarantine requirements in order to hide the fact that they are ill, which has broader health risks for all members of the community
  • Stigma affects the overall emotional and mental health of individuals and may cause further uncertainty, fear, or anxiety about the disease for targeted groups and the general public. 

Reducing Stigma & Discrimination

Everyone in the community can help to reduce the social stigma associated with COVID-19. Essential steps to reducing social stigma and discrimination include the following:

  1. COVID-19 has affected people from many countries across the world. Do not attach COVID-19 to any ethnicity, nationality, or geographical location. It is important to be empathic towards those who have been affected by COVID-19 in any country, as those with the disease have done nothing wrong.
  2. Use inclusive language and terminology to describe and talk about individuals who may be affected by COVID-19. This includes using person-first language. For example, rather than referring to individuals with COVID-19 as “COVID-19 cases”, “victims”, or “the diseased”, refer to these individuals as “persons being treated for COVID-19” or “persons who are recovering from COVID-19”.
  3. Avoid reading or listening to social media posts about COVID-19, where it originated from, or how it spread – many of these posts are just stories and not facts.
  4. Speak out against stigmatizing behaviours or negative statements about certain groups of people regarding COVID-19. Correct misconceptions that people may believe or spread by sharing facts from credible and reliable sources. 
  5. Support people who may be experiencing stigma and discrimination related to COVID-19. Reassure them that they have done nothing wrong and connect them to community resources and supports if required. Please see the “Where to Get Help & Resources” section of this website for more information on community resources and supports.
  6. Find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories about individuals who have been affected by COVID-19. This may include stories about people who have successfully recovered from the disease and are willing to share their experiences with others.
  7. Thank healthcare workers and first responders for their continued support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Acknowledge the role they play in saving lives and keeping the community safe.

For more information about preventing and reducing stigma and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic, please see the following resources:

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Last modified: 
Thursday, June 25, 2020 - 2:06pm