How to help the public overcome Covid-19 stigma

Urvashi Prasad | Updated on May 29, 2020

The government is moving to curb violence toward healthcare workers. But to dispel the fear and myths around the violence, community leaders, organisations, celebrities and the media must partake in responsible messaging

Even as the country’s health system is gearing up to contain the spread and impact of Covid-19, we are witnessing unfortunate instances of discrimination and violence against health professionals, as well as stigmatisation of patients. Reports of patients committing suicide after receiving a Covid-positive diagnosis have also come to the fore.

Social stigma is an old enemy of the health sector. For instance, we have nearly three million new cases of tuberculosis in India annually. However, despite being a fully curable condition, patients often continue to live in denial and avoid seeking treatment because of the fear of losing social standing. This not only makes it harder for individual patients to be treated, but also puts many others at risk of catching the illness. The same is true for Covid. Stigma will compel people to hide their symptoms which, in turn, will accelerate the spread of the infection as well as possibly result in higher fatalities due to patients not reaching hospitals in time.

In this context, the Central government recently cleared an Ordinance to punish violence against health workers. While punitive actions send out a strong signal to miscreants, addressing the complex issue of social stigma requires the active participation of citizens, community leaders, celebrities, civil society organisations and the media.

Responsible sharing of content

Firsty, it is critical that media reports on the pandemic are factual and balanced. Alongside emphasising the relatively high death rates among people with pre-existing conditions, the fact that for a large majority of people, the disease is asymptomatic or mild, must also be stressed. In the absence of this, there is a danger of people perceiving Covid as a death sentence.

Similarly, best efforts should be made to leave no room for misinterpretation of information regarding potential treatments. Reporting results of scientific studies in the media is challenging enough to begin with, and only becomes harder in the midst of a pandemic. The health sector, after all, is characterised by inherent information asymmetry; and it is especially difficult for a lay person to accurately process the welter of material available at this time.

Second, citizens need to be responsible when sharing content. This is not the first pandemic the world has seen, however, the extensive reach of social media and WhatsApp makes it fairly easy to spread fake or unverified news, especially when Covid is on top of most people’s minds. Influencers and celebrities can also nudge people to share information from verified sources and not fuel panic. In the case of TB, celebrities with mass appeal, like Amitabh Bachchan, have played their part in helping to break the stigma.

Commuinty engagement

Third, messages on public health and hygiene should be translated into multiple languages and shared in a variety of audio-visual formats through local mass media channels. Mobile applications that tap into India’s network of over 500 million smartphone users can also be leveraged. It is important that these messages not only focus on Covid prevention and management, but also encourage people to adopt hygienic practices as part of their long-term behaviors. For instance, in his recent ‘Mann Ki Baat’ address to the nation, the Prime Minister articulated that actions such as wearing of face covers or refraining from spitting in public places should become symbolic of citizens who take responsibility for protecting not only their own health but also that of others around them.

Fourth, the engagement of civil society organisations is vital as many of them are experienced with addressing stigma in the context of conditions like TB, HIV and mental health. Those who have worked in the field of immunisation are also knowledgeable about dispelling various myths and misconceptions with respect to vaccines. These experiences can come in very handy in breaking Covid-related stigma. Moreover, NGOs have established relationships with local communities, which can be leveraged to help district administrations amplify facts and positive messages through self-help groups, senior citizens and religious leaders.

Finally, there is a need to replicate and scale up good practices that are already being implemented in several areas. The Nuh district Haryana, for example, which is also part of the Government of India’s Aspirational Districts Programme, is using its community radio to spread awareness about social distancing, sanitisation, and fake news in relation to the pandemic. The radio broadcasts information received from district officials to around 225 villages. Several innovative programmes have been designed such as “Savdhaan,” which cautions people against believing in Covid myths and “Aaj Ka Hero”, which showcases a personal account of a resident who has made a desirable change to his health and hygiene habits as a consequence of the pandemic.

The writer is Public Policy Specialist, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

Published on May 29, 2020

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