07.04.2020 Article

Breaking the Barriers of Social Stigma Associated with COVID-19

By Joan Akua I. Iyoha
Breaking the Barriers of Social Stigma Associated with COVID-19
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The best models of influenza pandemics highlight the powerful influence of fear and stigma in the management of infectious disease emergencies. Goffman (1963) defines stigma as an attribute that can be deeply discrediting, which reduces whole persons to tainted and discounted others. Social stigma, therefore, is the disapproval of, or discrimination against, a person based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society. Social stigmas are commonly related to culture, gender, race, intelligence, and health.


The social consequences of stigma can result in adverse health effects in general, psychological disorientation, and even expectation of discrimination. Stigma is more than just a negative outcome of certain diseases; it is an illness in itself. The same argument can be made for the social stigma of infectious diseases as was the case of the 1918 influenza pandemic known as the “Spanish flu”, and till date, HIV infection and AIDS, a potentially stigmatized disease, and the ongoing Pandemic COVID-19.

Social Stigma can be a causative factor to some adverse phenomenon. First, it can pose major barriers against health care seeking, thereby reducing early detection and treatment and furthering the spread of disease. Furthermore, potentially stigmatized populations may distrust health authorities and resist cooperation during a public health emergency. Social stigma may also distort public perceptions of risk, resulting in mass panic among citizens and the disproportionate allocation of health care resources by politicians and health professionals.

Measures Put in Place to Reduce Social Stigmatization

According to the World Health organization (WHO) Situation Report – 35 focusing on the subject: Risk Communications to Address Stigma, in the case of COVID-19, there are an increasing number of reports of public stigmatization against people from areas affected by the epidemic. Unfortunately, this means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated, and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease. Given that COVID-19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread cause confusion, anxiety and fear among the general public, and can give rise to harmful stereotypes.

However, a few recommendations would provide helpful guides to destigmatise mindsets of COVID-19 and related infections

  • Spreading the facts: Stigma can be heightened by insufficient knowledge about how the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is transmitted and treated, and how to prevent infection. Share all relevant and accurate information on an epidemic as quickly as possible
  • Engaging social influencers such as religious leaders to provide social and psychological support to people who are stigmatized and how to support them, or respected celebrities to amplify messages that reduce stigma.
  • Amplify the voices, stories and images of local people who have experienced COVID-19 and have recovered or who have supported a loved one through recovery to emphasize that most people do recover from COVID-19.
  • Make sure you portray different ethnic groups. Materials should show diverse communities that are being affected, and show communities working together to prevent the spread of COVID-19
  • . Balanced reporting. Media reporting should be balanced and contextualized, disseminating evidence-based information and helping combat rumour and misinformation that could lead to stigmatization.
  • Link up. There are a number of initiatives to address stigma and stereotyping. It is key to link up to these activities to create a movement and a positive environment that shows care and empathy for all.


The importance of building a capacity for public trust, cannot be overemphasized, and this cannot happen without a pre-existing public health infrastructure for all segments of the population, especially those who are the most susceptible. Community trust is strongly influenced by the degree to which officials and health care providers have addressed local health needs prior to epidemic emergencies. Only when these conditions are preestablished is it realistic to expect affected populations to cooperate with programs such as contact tracing, isolation and lockdown measures In the earliest stages of an epidemic, care must be taken to support the social status of front-line health care providers and to ensure the safety of their immediate families. Otherwise, they may be forced to choose between the good of their families and the good of their larger society. At the same time, government transparency must be established from the very beginning. Official silence only reinforces misinformation and public mistrust. Without clear and reliable information, the unknown risks of infection can trigger stigmatization and create undue alarm.

Finally, it is worthy to note that Governments, citizens, media, key influencers and communities have an important role to play in preventing and stopping stigma. We all need to be intentional and thoughtful when communicating on social media and other communication platforms, showing supportive behaviors around COVID-19.


Joan Akua I. Iyoha

Producer / Host – AAU TV

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