The WHO guide to prevent and addressed social stigma related to COVID-19

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has prepared a guide to prevent and address stigma and discrimination related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Together with the COVID-19 emergency, in fact, discriminatory and stigmatising behaviours emerged, initially towards people of certain ethnic origins (let’s think of what happened to many people with Asian somatic traits) and later towards anyone perceived as having come into contact with the virus.

In the healthcare field, when we talk about social stigma we refer to the negative association between a person or a group of people sharing certain characteristics and a specific disease: people perceived as “linked” to a disease can become discriminated against, and at the same time those who are really affected by this condition risk a delay in the diagnosis and in the beginning of the treatment process. The social stigma linked to a disease or – as in this specific case – a pandemic therefore has direct repercussions on the effectiveness of measures to contain the contagion and to treat people who have come into contact with the pathogen.

In this sense, words matter: the way we communicate is fundamental to prevent or deal with stigmatisation and discrimination; access to treatment and care also involves proper information, and we need to create an environment in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed in an open, honest and effective way.

We have already seen what strategies can be put in place to stem the infodemia we are seeing. We would like to highlight some points of the WHO guide, referring to the reading of this short and effective document.

  • The words used in the media are important because they shape popular language and people’s perception of the disease: the use of war or hyperbolic language should be avoided, as should all associations between the pathogen and a specific place, as this type of communication risks strengthening false associations between the disease and other factors, creating widespread fear, or dehumanising those affected.
  • While it is necessary to highlight the wrong or misleading information, it must be acknowledged that people’s feelings and behaviour are real, even when their assumption is false.
  • The importance and effectiveness of prevention and screening must be promoted: focusing communication solely on the timing of the vaccine can increase the sense of powerlessness of the population.
  • Sharing the narratives, experiences and struggles of individuals or groups affected by COVID-19 can help to recreate a sense of community at a time of social distancing, as well as communicate support and encouragement to all those at the forefront of responding to this pandemic and maintaining essential services.1

We need collective solidarity, the creation of which also involves clear, workable, non-discriminatory and non-stigmatising information:

Facts, not fear will stop the spread of COVID-19.

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