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Stigma of COVID-19 will only increase the spike

Aldina Braganza

It’s a couple of months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and we are still trying to grapple with the routes of transmission and prevention. How much distancing is safe? It’s not only us in Goa or India that are trying to deal with this quandary, but across the world people are worried.

Now that the cases are rising steadily and we are amidst a phased lockdown, how should we behave to protect ourselves and our loved ones? How much is good enough. Unfortunately the virus is such that it is airborne and can be easily transmitted, so precautions are mandatory. The WHO has given a list of dos and don’ts, most significant of which is social distancing.

Historically, one can see that such mandates also increase a sense of fear and unfortunately promote discrimination. The chances of discriminating anyone who we consider a potential threat to our safety endorses bigotry. Prejudices are irrational. Doctors and nurses who are actually fighting the spread are being harassed. In the city of Indore for example, two medical doctors had stones hurled at them and needed police protection. In other parts of India, many physicians and their families report feeling ostracised. 

Aviation staff sent to bring back stranded Indians from countries that were already COVID-19 infected had similar experiences, not from strangers but from people they grew up with – friends and neighbours.

Closer to home in Goa, classic cases of prejudice and discrimination are demonstrations of protest against places that are being assigned as COVID care centres. Such ostentatious displays of hostility towards the virus and those affected by it trigger a sense of further shame and alienation.

A question I would like to pose at this juncture, and I hope that you take some time to reflect on it, is: how would you like to be treated if you were diagnosed as COVID-19 positive? Would you be happy that your family members are being beleaguered? That your neighbours who you grew up with don’t want you or your family around? I am sorry if this question is a little tough on you, but do you see how easy it is to discriminate and how terrible it is to be discriminated against?

With any kind of virus that needs prevention and precautionary measures there is a sense of fear that stops us from seeing things clearly. It is important at this stage of the pandemic to be mindful of our responses to each other. In the long run these responses will affect the course of the pandemic.

I am not saying ignore the guidelines instead adopt behaviours that will help flatten the curve of spread and help end the pandemic faster without undue drama that we are creating around it.

  First and foremost distinguish behaviours that are protective and those that are discriminatory. Don’t shy away from pointing out to people their prejudiced behaviours as being highly irresponsible.

There are reasons we need to do this. When a person suspects that they could be COVID-19 positive, they fear the shame that will be brought onto them and their family. This in turn stops them from getting tested or seeking medical attention. Such feared behaviour is the cause of unchecked transmission.  Because of the potential label and negative reactions, seemingly responsible people begin to behave irresponsibly.

 Stigma and discrimination are painful and hurt emotionally. In fact long drawn studies of other infectious diseases like HIV/TB show that when a person is discriminated against it affects their immunity and the ability to combat the illness.

If we want to flatten the curve, we need to be more understanding and reach out to people combating this disease. One way that will help you do this is getting valid information and keeping away from fake news. Call up family, friends and neighbours you know, ask about their health and tell them that you care for their safety and recovery.

 Avoid using discriminatory language such as labels. Once a person has recovered and gets tested negative, he/she no longer poses a threat of infection. So please do not avoid such people. Relate to them with dignity. Remember they might have a lesson or two for you to learn from so that if you ever get infected, you know what might help.

We need positive hopeful narratives rather than fear and avoidance to deal with this pandemic. Treat your doctors with respect and honour. They are putting their lives at risk every single day to keep us protected. If you know that COVID-19 care facilities are opening up in your neighbourhood do not oppose them out of sheer fear. Understand that the numbers will spike and those affected will need a place to be taken care.  Remember what will actually save you is wearing a face mask, sanitizing your hands frequently and keeping at least six feet distance between you and others (positive or not).

Hope and dignity will help us through this pandemic, not stigmatisation.

(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)

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