In February, I found myself in line at the Brussels airport to go through passport control on my way back home to Geneva. I was returning from Dakar, where I had been fortunate to participate in one of the African continent’s first training sessions on laboratory testing for the 2019 novel coronavirus. Still dreary from the evening flight, I looked around the line and noticed a good number of people around me wearing surgical masks. At that time, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases were in China, with a few cases found in other parts of East and Southeast Asia. That was no problem for me, as I had been nowhere near China. However, I began to notice others meeting my glance and slowly inching away from me. Then I realized: I was being avoided because I’m Asian.
The irony of traveling from a meeting about laboratory testing for the novel coronavirus was not lost on me, but I felt targeted. It was as if I did something bad and that, somehow, I shouldn’t be there.
COVID-19, first identified in Wuhan, China in late 2019, has infected over 100,000 individuals infected in over 100 countries at the time of publication. As confirmed cases continued to grow, so have reports of xenophobia and stigmatization, especially against Chinese and Asian communities throughout the world.
Stigma in response to infectious diseases isn’t new
Unfortunately, this is a common experience, as people disproportionately affected by disease often face stigmatization by the larger society. Stigmatization negatively affects our ability to stop disease transmission by making those in the targeted community less likely to seek care for fear of being ostracized. What is especially challenging in the global response to COVID-19 is the rapid spread of misinformation (which the World Health Organization (WHO) aptly calls an “infodemic”) coupled with the global political shift to protectionism and populism. This only further fuels bias against certain groups and prevents access to the necessary information to slow and eventually stop the virus’ spread.
Stigma and misinformation is a pervasive challenge in the response to COVID-19 as we’ve seen blaming of entire communities and personal attacks. How do we, as global health and public health practitioners, counter stigma and ensure that accurate information is circulating?
Acknowledging that there is exhaustive stigma related to the COVID-19 pandemic is an important first step. The WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control released great guidelines for how to respond to stigma around the current outbreak. Health and risk communication is vital to outbreak response and we have a responsibility to share facts and speak up against misinformation and bias. Lastly, we need to show compassion and support for individuals and communities who are disproportionately affected by this disease.
It’s important to remember that infectious diseases are indiscriminate. And the only way to effectively respond to COVID-19 is to tackle the challenge, without discrimination, together.
Devy Emperador was a 2012–2013 Global Health Corps fellow in Uganda. She is currently a Scientific Officer at FIND, where she manages diagnostic development and lab capacity building projects for epidemic- and pandemic-prone diseases in low- and middle-income regions.
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