From the Viewsroom

Contain spread of virus stigma

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 06, 2020

Use of insensitive language gives rise to prejudice against Covid-19

When casual references are made to the Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, it may not strike many that such words are indeed the building blocks of stigma. A stereotype is painted, and soon enough, scaremongers start isolating the person or community from where coronavirus instances were reported.

And it has started. A couple of days ago, media in the UK reported on an alleged coronavirus-linked attack on a young Singaporean student, who was punched in the face. This is being investigated by the authorities, but the media report also states that the University of Oxford advised staff to come together as a community and “support and not shun one another.” Reports from Canada narrate steps taken by the Chinese-Canadian citizens in combating slurs directed at them, following the spread of Covid-19.

It’s only when violent or hateful attacks hit the headlines that it becomes evident how casual words become the breeding ground for animosity.

In the past, animal welfare groups have called for sensitive language in reporting incidents involving animals. Often, loose labels like “conflict” or “menace” are used without giving the real picture — that of a reduced animal habitat caused by human encroachments. Insensitive words ratchet up the hysteria, leading to attacks on animals.

The thoughtless ‘labelling syndrome’ crops up in various contexts, if we look closely. Since the new coronavirus still has many unknowns that scientists are trying to understand, it could cause anxiety and fear that fuels harmful stereotypes.

Against this backdrop, the World Health Organization has advised on how not to refer to the spread of Covid-19. It is not an “Asian” virus that was “infecting” people, the WHO said, advising against the use of hyperbole that suggested a “plague” or “apocalypse” type situation. Calling for less dramatic, but accurate words like “acquiring” or “contracting” Covid-19, the WHO explains that even the official name for the disease was chosen in a manner to avoid stigmatisation

The writer is Deputy Editor with BusinessLine

Published on March 06, 2020

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