It takes all of us to reduce stigma during disease outbreaks
Co-authored by Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman and Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs Executive Director Toshiko Hasegawa
Our world is tied more closely together today than at any point in human history. We are richer for it, especially in Washington state. We thrive and prosper on our international connections, trade, and travel. These connections can present modern day challenges, such as communicable diseases, that know no boundaries.
On January 21, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) reported the first confirmed case in the U.S. of novel coronavirus. Public health officials from local, state, and federal agencies took swift action to speak with anyone who may have come in close contact with the affected individual. Together, we continue to respond to this virus, develop guidance, and share health information with the public.
“While this is a novel virus, it’s not a novel investigation,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman, “and our teams are well-trained and prepared to respond to situations like this.”
DOH is monitoring the situation and is taking steps to stay ahead of it. Unfortunately, stories of discriminatory treatment of members of the Asian community have been reported in local media and online. It’s important to remember that the risk to the general public in Washington of contracting novel coronavirus remains low. Although novel coronavirus originates in Wuhan, China, the disease is not specific to any ethnic group. China is an ethnically diverse country with thousands of people from around the world passing through its borders each day.
“All people should feel safe and supported in their communities, especially if they are in need of health care resources. When it comes to infectious disease, country of origin does not mean that people with an association to that area are ill or contagious. In any case, hostility and shame are inappropriate public responses to illness, and only adversely impact public health’s ability to identify and assist people who may be in need of care,” said Toshiko Hasegawa, Executive Director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.
You are much more likely to become sick with a cold or the flu than to be exposed to novel coronavirus. We encourage you to take reasonable steps to prevent the spread of germs, though not to the point of reinforcing false stigma, prejudice, or blatant discrimination. Take the same steps to protect yourself from novel coronavirus as you would to reduce your risk of catching any respiratory virus:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Cover your coughs or sneezes, in your elbow or into a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
- Clean and disinfect “high touch” objects and surfaces such as doorknobs, faucet handles, railings, and shared keyboards.
Also, if you are ill, stay home and seek healthcare if needed.
You can help reduce stigma and bias:
- Rely on and share trusted sources of information about the causes of outbreaks from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Department of Health.
- Speak up if you hear, see, or read stigmatizing or harassing comments or misinformation.
- Show compassion and support for individuals and communities most closely impacted and anyone who might be sick.
When it comes to protecting the public’s health, we are all in this together. Allowing misinformation to spread, stigma to thrive, or otherwise ostracizing community members is counter-productive to improving public health and safety. Stigma is not going to fight this outbreak, but together, we can.
For regular updates, visit the Department of Health website at www.doh.wa.gov/coronavirus.
Visit the Public Health Seattle & King County website for a coronavirus fact sheet translated into multiple languages.
The Washington State Department of Health has established a call center to address coronavirus questions from the public — please call 1–800–525–0127 and press #.