Social stigma associated with COVID-19

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Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, people can sometimes be labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, or experience loss of status because of real or perceived links with the disease.[1] As a result of such treatment, those who have (or are perceived to have) the disease, as well as their caregivers, family, friends, and communities, may be subjected to social stigma.[2]

Due to the social stigma, individuals and groups can be subjected to racism and xenophobia and hate crimes. The groups shown to be most vulnerable to social stigma are people of Asian descent, people who have traveled abroad, people who have recently completed quarantine, healthcare professionals and emergency service workers. It has also been shown that wearing or refusing to wear a mask has become subject to a stigma.[2] as well. The existence of such social stigma.[2] and their negative impact have been documented by many organizations, including UNICEF, WHO, and the CDC.[3][4][5][6]

Reasons and impact of social stigma[edit]

The level of stigma towards those affected with COVID-19 is due to multiple factors. The virus is new, and there are many unknowns surrounding transmission and a possible cure. Many people cannot access tests and[7] drug development for treatment is still in progress. Meanwhile, there is widespread misinformation regarding the disease, under which various online groups and activists have spread conspiracy theories and unproven claims, including: the virus was created in a laboratory, the virus was "planned," and the virus was caused by 5G networks, among other theories.[8][9][10]

In this cultural context, the disease itself is an unknown—and, according to many international health experts, people are feel fearful when confronted with the unknown. In such circumstances, the may deal with this fear by assigning blame to the "other," [2] which may include groups of people, governments, or institutions. This environment can fuel harmful stereotypes. As a result, social cohesion is undermined, and there may be increased social isolation of impacted groups. With this social isolation, people may be less likely to seek out medical help or services, take necessary precautions, or seek out social services, due to fear of discrimination. This can contribute to a situation in which the virus is more likely to spread, leading to severe health problems and difficulties in controlling disease outbreak.[2] Furthermore, people could also subjected to physical violence[3] and hate crimes.

Addressing social stigma[edit]

In order to address social stigma, it is important to build trust in reliable health services and advice, show empathy to the affected individuals and adopting effective practical measures to keep people safe.[2] The following measures are recommended to address social stigma by the UNICEF:[2]

  • Use of people-first language, that respects the individual and talking about the disease with a positive tone in all communication channels, including media, such as:
    • Not attaching ethnicity or locations to the disease, such as 'Wuhan virus' or 'Asian virus' and using only the official name COVID-19
    • Using 'people who have COVID-19' instead of 'COVID-19 cases' or 'COVID-19 victims' or 'COVID-19 suspects'
    • Using terminology like, people 'acquiring' or 'contracting' COVID-19 instead of people 'transmitting COVID-19', 'infecting others' or 'spreading the virus' as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame
    • Refrain from using criminalising or dehumanising terminology in a way that might create impression that those with the disease have done something wrong, thereby feeding stigma
    • Speaking the facts about COVID-19 accurately, based on scientific data and latest official health advice
    • Not repeating or sharing unconfirmed rumors, and avoiding using of exaggerative terms like 'plague' and 'apocalypse' to denote the pandemic
    • Emphasizing the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures, rather than dwelling on the negatives or messages of threat.
  • Spreading accurate and updated facts, such as by:
    • Using simple language and avoiding clinical terminology
    • Engaging social influencers, such as religious or political leaders and celebrities to amplify the message in a geographically and culturally appropriate way
    • Amplifying the stories and images of local people who have recovered or supported a loved one through the recovery from COVID-19
    • Portraying of different ethnic groups, and use of symbols and formats that are neutral and not suggestive of any ethnic group
    • Practicing ethical journalism: Reports that overly focus on patient responsibility can increase stigma for people who may have the disease. News that speculates the source of COVID-19 in each country, for example, can increase stigma towards such individuals.
    • Linking up to the other initiatives that address social stigma and stereotyping
  • Observe communication tips:[3]
    • Correct misconceptions, while acknowledging that people's feelings and subsequent behaviour are real, even if their underlying assumptions are false.
    • Share sympathetic narratives and stories that humanise the struggles of affected individuals and groups
    • Communicate support for those working in the frontline

According to United Nations Population Fund, midwives play an essential role in reducing stigma and battling the spreading belief that health facilities are to be avoided.[11]


  1. ^ "Social stigma associated with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)". Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Social Stigma associated with COVID-19" (PDF). UNICEF. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  3. ^ a b c "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 11 February 2020. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  4. ^ "Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak" (PDF). World Health Organization. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  5. ^ "Asian-American Leaders Condemn COVID-19 Racism". 13 March 2020. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  6. ^ "COVID-19 (coronavirus): Stop the stigma". Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  7. ^ Lopez, German (2020-04-10). "Why America is still failing on coronavirus testing". Vox. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  8. ^ "Social media used to spread, create COVID-19 falsehoods". Harvard Gazette. 2020-05-08. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  9. ^ Ball, Philip; Maxmen, Amy (2020-05-27). "The epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories". Nature. 581: 371–374. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-01452-z.
  10. ^ Vincent, James (2020-06-03). "Conspiracy theorists say 5G causes novel coronavirus, so now they're harassing and attacking UK telecoms engineers". The Verge. Retrieved 2020-06-05.
  11. ^ "COVID-19 Technical Brief for Maternity Services". May 2020. Retrieved 5 June 2020.