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Coronavirus: WHO says stigma more dangerous, asks people not to refer to COVID-19 as Chinese virus or apocalypse

'There is a common enemy on this planet itself where we need to fight in unison,' says WHO chief
UPDATED MAR 19, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus outbreak has led to harmful stereotypes, but facts, not fear, will stop COVID-19. So how should we talk about it? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now released a document to help tackle social stigma. It says “words matter” and recommends not to refer to COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” or  “plague” or “apocalypse.”

“There is a common enemy on this planet itself where we need to fight in unison. And stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself. Let’s really underline that stigma is the most dangerous enemy,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

'Let’s really underline that stigma is the most dangerous enemy,' says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

What is social stigma?

According to the WHO, social stigma in the context of health is the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In an outbreak, this may mean people are labeled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease. 

“Such treatment can negatively affect those with the disease, as well as their caregivers, family, friends, and communities. People who don’t have the disease but share other characteristics with this group may also suffer from stigma,” says the WHO.

Why is COVID-19 causing stigma?

The current outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviors against people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus. 

The level of stigma associated with COVID-19 is based on three main factors, says the WHO. The fact that it is a disease that’s new and for which there are still many unknowns; we are often afraid of the unknown, and it is easy to associate that fear with ‘others’. 

What is the impact?

Stigma, say experts, is counter-productive. It drives people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination, prevents them from seeking healthcare immediately, and even discourages people from adopting healthy behaviors. According to experts, such barriers could potentially contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties controlling infectious diseases during an infectious disease outbreak. 

So how should you address social stigma?

The WHO says words matter. The experts recommend a ‘people first’ language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels, including the media.

Commuters with masks on a train in Tokyo (AP Photo/Jae C Hong)

The reason: when talking about coronavirus disease, certain words and language might have a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatizing attitudes. “They can perpetuate existing negative stereotypes or assumptions, strengthen false associations between the disease and other factors, create widespread fear, or dehumanize those who have the disease,” says the WHO.

Sharing facts and accurate information about the disease, challenging myths and stereotypes, and choosing words carefully are the way to go. 

“Misconceptions, rumors, and misinformation are contributing to stigma and discrimination which hamper response efforts. Correct misconceptions, at the same time as acknowledging that people’s feelings and subsequent behavior are very real, even if the underlying assumption is false. Promote the importance of prevention, lifesaving actions, early screening, and treatment,” says the WHO.

The WHO also recommends that all material of communication should show diverse communities being impacted and working together to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Ensure that typeface, symbols, and formats are neutral and don’t suggest any particular group,” suggest experts. 

The Do’s and Don’ts

(Getty Images)

Do: Talk about the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Don’t: Attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus.” “The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization — the “co” stands for Corona, “vi” for virus and “d” for disease, 19 is because the disease emerged in 2019,” says the WHO. 

Do: Talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” COVID-19.
Don’t: Talk about people “transmitting COVID-19” “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame. “Using criminalizing or dehumanizing terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, and potentially fuelling wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening, testing, and quarantine,” says the WHO.

Do: Speak accurately about the risk from COVID-19, based on scientific data and the latest official health advice. Also, emphasize the effectiveness of adopting protective measures to prevent acquiring the new coronavirus, as well as early screening, testing, and treatment.
Don’t: Repeat or share unconfirmed rumors, and avoid using hyperbolic language designed to generate fear like “plague”, “apocalypse,” etc.

Do: Talk positively and emphasize the effectiveness of prevention and treatment measures. “For most people, this is a disease they can overcome. There are simple steps we can all take to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable safe,” says the WHO.
Don’t: Emphasise or dwell on the negative, or messages of threat. “We need to work together to help keep those who are most vulnerable safe,” says the WHO.