Approaches for Quelling Stigma related to COVID-19

Associate Professor & Dr. Longtao He, Research Institute of Social Development, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chengdu, China. Address: 55 Guanghuacun Road, Chengdu City, 610074, China. Email: ORCID 0000-0001-7072-7457


Since the COVID-19 outbreak in China, “Wuhan” and “Wuhanese” have become terms equivalent to the virus itself for many Chinese citizens outside of Hubei province (whose capital city is Wuhan). The content of many social media posts in China have stigmatized Wuhan or Wuhanese, for example posts engaging in name-calling (e.g., “quarantine-breakers”) or video clips of people shouting at or even physically assaulting Wuhanese or people who visited Wuhan after the outbreak. This stigma towards Wuhanese within China 1,2China’s national strategies for dealing with the virus, such as quarantine and physical isolation, have been criticized for contributing to or reinforcing the prevalence of this stigma against Wuhan.3 COVID-19 related stigma against residents living or traveling to endemic areas has also bred. Chinese residents, even East Asian residents–looking people in general—have been labelled as virus carriers in some countries.4 This short article draws on lessons learnt from other infectious disease outbreaks, such as HIV and Ebola, to help inform approaches to COVID-19-related stigma within China.

A multilayered view of stigmatizing discourses lays the foundation for eliciting a series of suggestions for quelling stigma, to be implemented at the individual, community, and national levels, as suggested by the WHO.5,6 If possible, anti-stigmatization measures should begin to play a role before stigma becomes solidified. The community can help people abide by national quarantine measures by turning negative narratives into ones encouraging people to be “more careful”. Practical inspiration may be found in the community-based approach advocated by the WHO5,6 for the prevention and control of Ebola, which included working towards community members’ acceptance of victims and providing psycho-social counseling for the infected, sympathy training for community workers, and other behavioral and cognitive change programs to replace stigma with reintegration.7 Moreover, medical professionals, health practitioners, and relevant academic institutions should proactively disseminate creditable news and information during such health outbreaks through mainstream social media channels.8 For example, prestigious medical schools and hospitals could use official WeChat accounts to share information and news with the general public. As previous research has found, providing factual information helps tremendously in addressing misconceptions and myths about infectious diseases, the latter of which can seriously undermine implementation of preventive measures.

Scholars such as Wen et al.9 and Yang10 suggested that community approaches for managing stigmatization related to infectious disease must also include an individual aspect, primarily achieved through dissemination of useful and authentic information. For example, individuals, including community health workers, potential stigmatizers, and even the stigmatized, need to cultivate a sense of caring and sympathy for those infected and for other stigmatized groups in the community. Yet, as Tenkorang7 made the point, it is simply not enough to only implement approaches at the community level. National involvement is also needed to facilitate these efforts. Many Chinese expressed their disapproval of the many untrusted sources of information online while demonstrating a high level of trust towards the central government.11 As Shao and Li12 proposed, prejudice and discrimination generated from untrusted information about COVID-19 on social media can be resisted through appropriate regulation and strong, highly visible official messaging.




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