COVID-19 Stigma: What It Is and How It Affects Everyone

People who fear COVID-19 stigma might hide symptoms and endanger others.

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COVID-19 has understandably increased stress and tension. While everyone’s situation is different, there’s one thing almost everyone can agree on: The pandemic hasn’t been easy to navigate. To make it worse, the stress and fear of the pandemic has created some unfair discrimination: the COVID-19 stigma.

What Is COVID-19 Stigma?

Stigma refers to negative attitudes toward certain people or things. For example, people may unfairly discriminate against others by “assuming” they have COVID-19 based on their race, job, or appearance.

Unfortunately, there’s been a long history of stigma when new diseases appear. When the cause of leprosy was unknown, people worried that the disease was a religious punishment for sinning. The stigma led to leprosy colonies, where people with the disfiguring disease were isolated away from others. Similarly, early HIV patients—or even gay men without HIV—suffered stigma. As myths about HIV circulated, people feared the virus might be airborne or transmissible from a simple touch.

COVID-19 has also been associated with stigma. At the start of the pandemic, facts were scarce. The fear of the mysterious disease caused many people to speculate. In many cases, some unfair assumptions led to COVID-19 stigma.

Who Is a Victim of COVID-19 Stigma?

The truth is, everyone suffers the effects of COVID-19 stigma (more on that later). However, the people who have directly experienced stigma during the pandemic include:

  • Asians and Asian Americans: Many people incorrectly assumed that Asians and Asian Americans were “more likely” to have COVID-19 (they’re not) due to the discovery of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China.
  • Businesses owned by Asian Americans: Chinese restaurants in particular suffered when people mistakenly believed they would get COVID-19 by eating Chinese food (they won’t).
  • People who have or have had COVID-19: Even after the disease has passed, people may continually fear the recovered person. Furthermore, they may believe the disease was the patient’s own fault.
  • People who have a chronic cough unrelated to COVID-19: One example is people with COPD, which causes chronic cough. They may be victims of stigma in public places if others believe their cough is actually a sign of COVID-19.
  • People with disabilities: Some mental or behavioral disabilities may interfere with one’s abilities to follow social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing practices. Strangers may jump to conclusions that the person is intentionally not following the guidelines, which may lead to conflict.
  • Healthcare workers: Because many doctors and nurses have a high rate of exposure to COVID-19 patients, people may avoid them in public places or even discriminate against them.

What the Stigma Looks Like

Victims of COVID-19 stigma have shared a number of upsetting stories about being harassed in public places. These stories range from verbal attacks and public embarrassment to physical violence and acts of hate. Not only is this dangerous for the victim, but it can also increase feelings of shame, stress, and isolation. Ultimately, the discrimination can be detrimental to physical and mental health.

Furthermore, there have been some cases of unlawful discrimination against victims of stigma. For example, they may have trouble getting housing or a job if a realtor or employer thinks they are a “risk” to others (simply based on their race, for example).

However, it’s not only the direct victims of COVID-19 stigma who suffer. Because of the stigma, people may hide COVID-19 symptoms out of fear. They may avoid going to the doctor to get a diagnosis. As HIV has shown, reducing the stigma around a disease encourages more people to get testing, practice preventative strategies, and seek treatment.

Breaking the Stigma

As mentioned before, blaming certain people for “causing” or “spreading” a disease often stems from a lack of understanding. Now that researchers know more about COVID-19, it’s important to separate the facts from the myths, which can empower you to slow the spread of infection *and* stigma.

To bust the stigma related to COVID-19, keep these tips in mind:

  • Learn the facts about COVID-19 and share them with others. Be cautious of information shared about COVID-19 on social media or in podcasts, blogs, or radio shows by people who are not medical experts. Practice good “media literacy” and check for accuracy, bias, or sources. To learn how to assess the accuracy of health information online, check out this tutorial by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  • Use the correct terminology and help others do the same. For example, phrases like “Wuhan virus” perpetuate the unfair stigma against Asian Americans.
  • Speak out against discrimination or stereotyping. If you see harassment happening, or you overhear a “joke” that perpetuates the stigma, say something.

Your words and actions may have a positive ripple effect on your whole community. The more people understand COVID-19 and how it spreads, the less likely people will engage in dangerous activities or unfairly blame the disease on others.