Ervin Goffman, an influential American social psychologist was on target to describe stigma as “an attribute deeply discrediting”. This theoretical concept expounds the fact that one’s behaviour, race, skin colour, body size, reputation or condition causes them to be classified as undesirable; hence, are rejected and stereotyped.
This exposes the ills and mental state of people stigmatized. Stigmatization engenders pain, harassment, self-doubt, inferiority complex, depression and can culminate in suicidal occurrences.
The emergence of Covid-19 has generated an upsetting uproar in the way and manner those affected are treated. This highly infectious disease which, up to date, experts have neither discovered vaccines nor cure for, has sparked fear and panic among the public; thereby, fuelling harmful stigma.
People in isolation due to Covid-19, people who have recovered from the disease; people in the frontline of the management of the outbreak such as the police, healthcare workers; individuals of Chinese descent or those who travelled from highly infected countries; those showing symptoms such as running nose or cough have been reported to be facing discrimination or stigma on account of heightened fear and misinformation about the disease.
According to the American Psychological Association, stigmatized groups are vulnerable during epidemics and pandemics and can put others at risk. This is because, stigmatized people tend to hide symptoms of illness to avoid discrimination. They may not seek healthcare when necessary and may further alienate themselves. Also, stigmatized people are more likely to be underinsured or have difficulties accessing culturally appropriate care, or face discrimination in healthcare centres, all of which eventually intensify the difficulty in containing the spread of the virus.
Reports on stigma associated with Covid-19 victims in the country have been so degrading, dehumanizing and psychologically impairing.
On the 14th of May, 2020, Matilda Agammu, a pregnant trader who happens to be the first Covid-19 patient in the Upper East Region of Ghana, recounted her terrible ordeal with her fellow market women and members in her community in the media. Notwithstanding a clean bill of health, her fellow traders and neighbours shunned her and accused her of wanting to infect them with the virus. The 34-year-old Ghanaian was traumatized and inflicted with pain through public insults and ridicule anytime she showed up at the market. She is, therefore, psychologically, economically and socially affected.
A Catholic Sociologist and Gender Specialist, Dr. Miriam Rahinatu Iddrisu, in an interview with Association for Catholics Information in Africa (ACI) disclosed a disheartening story of how the family of a 19-year-old boy, who died of coronavirus in the Walewale Government hospital in the North-East Region of Ghana, was disgraced and avoided by friends and neighbours. Nobody traded with them; they felt completely marginalised.
At the weekly Covid-19 media briefing at the Ministry of Information, a fully recovered victim shared his story on how he was not attended to by his barber in a salon and his electrician when his car developed a fault, after granting an interview on television as a Covid-19 survivor.
The stigma suffered by Covid-19 survivors can create a barrier for people seeking immediate medical attention when showing symptoms of Covid-19; thus, intensifying the spread of the disease.
Stigmatization has become a major challenge in this country and beyond. It is like a terrifying compulsion strangling people silently into their graves. We need to, so urgently, tackle this nefarious attack which is drilling emotions with grave repercussions. It is therefore very pertinent to tackle this ferocious prejudice and discrimination in the country.
Notwithstanding the government’s quick response to the negativity associated with stigma, more efforts need to be accelerated to mitigate the effect of this heightened misbehaviour. People are more prone to prejudice, discrimination and stigma when they lack sufficient knowledge and accurate information. Given this, clear, precise and culturally appropriate communication, in multiple forms and in multiple languages on Covid-19—is necessary to reach out to the majority of the population, with particular focus on marginalized communities. Citizens through continuous education, should be made to understand that the safety protocols of the disease- washing of hands regularly under running water and soap, wearing face masks, social distancing etc – when strictly followed and adhered to can protect them despite how contagious the virus is.
Also, anyone who catches the virus or recovers from the virus is not to blame; thus, needs love and care from family and friends more than ever. Influential people in society such as opinion leaders, business leaders, celebrities, faith leaders should be engaged to disseminate information on Covid-19 to the populace through various media channels since most people love, follow and look up to them. Journalists should focus their reports more on Covid-19 prevention practices; symptoms to look out for, how to seek health care and should reduce the reports on infected persons and their behaviours.
The kind of diction and language we use on people who have virus can fuel stigmatization and create widespread fear. We as citizens must stop tagging other countries and its citizens for being responsible for the continued spread of the virus. We must avoid referring to people who have the disease or recovering from Covid-19 as Covid-19 victims or cases, or Covid-19 suspects since the use of these words/expressions can be very detrimental and psychologically disturbing. Instead, they should be referred to as people who have Covid-19 or may have Covid-19.We must avoid sharing photos or personal details or disclosing background, ethnicity, gender or medical condition of people who have or may have Covid-19. Doing this perpetuates and reinforces bias and stigmatization.
Stigmatization, bias and prejudice are dangerous public health threat. They affect the mental, physical, social and economic wellbeing of people and make it difficult for the current or a future epidemic or pandemic to be contained. I believe as responsible citizens we would want to contribute to the eradication of this deadly virus and all undesirable behaviours associated with it. We must, therefore, consume accurate information, abide by and adhere to all practices and protocols of Covid-19 and most importantly, avoid stigmatization.
The writer, Benita Odoi, holds a Masters degree in Communication Studies from the University of Ghana, Legon.