At the moment, the world suffers a severe outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus, code-named COVID-19. This highly infectious disease is crippling the global economy as businesses, sports, religious groups are closing down to curtail the spread of the virus. Many major cities have been locked down, essentially banning virtually all movement within their territories.
This isn’t the first time the world has been faced with a pandemic, neither is it the first coronavirus outbreak. Previous strains of the virus, SARS and MERS had raged in 2002 and 2014 respectively, though neither has as much impact on the world as COVID-19 now does. Also, the world has had a history of pandemics. Even in the modern era, we have battled, or still battle such pandemics as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Swine flu, etc. Historically, infectious diseases have killed more human beings, than any other factor.
Background of the Novel Coronavirus
This current Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, Hubei province, China with patients reporting symptoms of the flu, and in some severe cases pneumonia. With time, doctors and medical researchers discovered that they were battling a novel Coronavirus, and first erroneously thought the human-to-human transmission was impossible. In fact, each person with coronavirus has the potential to impact an average of 2.5 other persons. This high infectiousness rate plus lack of necessary precautions initially, caused the virus to spread exponentially.
Today, more than a million cases of the coronavirus have been reported. Of that total, around 50,000 people have died of complications arising from the virus while more than 200,000 have recovered. According to medical experts, most people who contract the virus do with mild symptoms that go within days, and some are even asymptomatic. However, people with weaker immune systems are more likely to not recover, with many eventually dying of their initial medical conditions made worse by the presence of the virus in their bodies. That has caused the elderly to be particularly susceptible to dying of the virus.
Measures to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus have included practicing good hygiene (particularly handwashing), maintaining social distancing, and simply staying at home. Confirmed cases are remitted into a quarantine period while suspected cases are made to self-isolate for at least two weeks. So, in general, the best way to reduce the spread of the virus is to simply avoid people. However, this very good advice has been turned on its head to justify the stigmatization of patients and people with suspected cases.
Stigmatization Around Coronavirus
Human beings often fear what they do not know, and much of the COVID-19 remains unknown. However, while it is necessary for everyone to avoid every other person at a period such as this, some classes of people have particularly endured stigma and stereotypes. The CDC identifies the following group of people as experiencing stigma:
- Persons of Asian descent
- People who have traveled
- Emergency responders or healthcare professionals
Before the coronavirus traveled the world, extending to Europe, the Americas, and Africans, there was so much apprehension of and xenophobia against Asians, particularly the Chinese, considering that the outbreak began in China. For instance,
- Hong Kong restaurants keep turning away customers from mainland China
- The Japanese trended #ChineseDontComeToJapan on Twitter.
- The Chinese Embassy in Berlin, Germany reported incidents of hostilities against its nationals.
- Numerous xenophobic actions against Asian-Americans have been reported in the United States.
- In Egypt, the locals slur Japanese people by calling them ‘corona’.
- Following reports that a significant percentage of cases in the country can be traced to the church, the Shincheonji Church of South Korea reported widespread persecution against its congregants and appealed to the public.
Recently, the New York Times ran a story detailing incidents of stigmatization (including death threats) against people who came back from abroad. But what is perhaps worst of all is the stigma against healthcare workers, considering that these are the ones on the frontline in the battle against the coronavirus.
In the Philipines, a healthcare worker lamented, “We healthcare workers have always enjoyed the trust of our community. I underestimated how hysteria could make them turn on us so quickly.” Apparently, soon after the first case was reported in the country, the hysteria that followed led to hospital staff (including cleaners) getting evicted from their homes, refused public transport, turned away for essential services, and even physically attacked.
The situation is similarly appalling in India as well. Many doctors and nurses have reported incidents of harassment and violence, even when they could not have been in contact with a coronavirus patient.
Also, many marginalized peoples and the elderly (who are at the most risk of the virus) who have the virus are being discriminated against in testing and treatment. If that goes on, there would surely be a rise in the number of cases and deaths, especially preventable ones.
In a statement by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, she advised governments, in their dealing with the situation to “approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.” In a similar fashion, the Director-General of the WHO has warned against age discrimination in coronavirus treatment.
While coronavirus remains a quite deadly disease, the stigma and prejudice are unwarranted and products of ignorance about the disease, fear, and anxiety. Already, efforts to combat the harassment that people in the risk-zone face every now and then have included the sensitization of people about the coronavirus and how it works, taking swift actions against hate crimes and discrimination, and also having the public appreciate healthcare workers, for instance, by clapping for them, as people in many European cities now do.