Fighting COVID-19 stigma took the spotlight this week following the launch of the ‘#SolidarityNotStigma’ campaign led by the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF), a multi-donor programme which has partnered with formidable sporting and musical brands to raise awareness on the dangers of coronavirus stigma. The campaign is not only timely as more recoveries are being recorded, it is also a much-needed rallying point for the nation to unite in fighting COVID-19 stigma.
The #SolidarityNotStigma campaign challenges us to remember that we are in this together. When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, there was a palpable fear that began settle in the air. No one really knew what to expect from this respiratory disease expect the fact that it made a lot of people sick and people around the world were dying.
The news in those early months showed overflowing hospitals, shared stats on the numbers who had acquired and died from the coronavirus and spoke about flattening the curve. Countries around the world closed their borders to foreign travellers, entered into national lockdowns and scrambled to acquire test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).
With each protective measure taken by governments, and the manner in which the pandemic dominated national and international news, the fear among people increased. It did not help that, globally, health facilities were failing to cope and the predictions for what COVID-19 would do in African countries were not hopeful.
A combination of the conditions and the reporting on the coronavirus led to anxiety. Where fear resides, it is easy for people to become suspicious of each other which leads to stigmatisation especially when someone does fall ill.
COVID-19 also meant a change of behaviour for everyone. Masks became mandatory and movement was restricted. No longer could you gather in groups regardless of the people being family or friends. No longer could you shake hands, embrace or eat out of the same plate.
A change from what is perceived as natural put people on edge and made them feel ill at ease. With the constant stream of information that said ‘avoid touching people’ and that ‘the virus spreads from person to person’, it became easy for one to be suspicious of the other. The paranoia was inevitable where fear is already a factor.
Enter social stigma which the WHO defines as “the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease.” They go on to add, “in an outbreak, social stigma may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, how many times have you been sitting in an area and someone coughs or sneezes? Previously the reaction would be a courteous “bless you” but now suspicious eyes turn and people shift away from the person who coughed.
The problem with stigma is that it can make the disease harder to fight. “Stigma can undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread. This can result in more severe health problems and difficulties controlling a disease outbreak,” says the WHO.
Where people are shunned for being ill or for being perceived to be sick it will only lead to some people hiding their illness or refusing to seek treatment for fear of discrimination. This is detrimental to everyone and therefore means that society has a collective responsibility to curb social stigma related to COVID-19. It is in the interests of all people to treat each other with compassion and encourage them during what is already a scary time.
To fight COVID-19 stigma, you have to fight people’s fear. The first step is provide them with accurate, reliable and verifiable information. The challenge with COVID-19 is that its novelty means there are information gaps as scientists are still trying to understand the virus. Even the WHO had changing infection prevention and control (IPC) information which they put out as they acquired new knowledge.
Nevertheless, despite there not being all the information, there is enough to taper people’s fears, for example, globally the recovery rate is over 67 percent and in Zimbabwe the recovery rate is 75% according to the COVID-19 SitRep of September 13, 2020. This information is useful as it gives people hope.
It is equally critical when providing information for it to be explained in a simple and easy to digest form rather than just share something out of context that generates more fear. It is better to tell someone to stay home as much as possible because this will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep the community safe as people are less exposed, rather than give the command, “don’t go outside.”
Another important step is to prepare. Understand what steps you need to take should a person contract COVID-19. In Zimbabwe the COVID-19 hotlines are 2019 and 393 or reach out to your doctor or health professional if you suspect you have symptoms. Know the symptoms and make sure that everyone in the home is informed and has a plan for what to do in the event that they or anyone else falls ill. This physical preparation can also assist to prepare someone mentally as they are now in a position to respond.
According to the WHO, “what works in the fight against stigma is building trust in reliable health services and advice, showing empathy with those affected, understanding the disease itself, and adopting effective, practical measures so people can help keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”
If society is filled with compassion, treats each other with respect and shows love and kindness to one another then it is possible for us to collectively fight the fear and with it fight the stigma. We must all answer to the clarion call of the ongoing ZRBF #SolidarityNotStigma campaign.