The announcement of the public health emergencies at the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) over the past few months has been stressful for people and communities. Beyond affecting our lives as a people, the Pandemic has provoked social stigma of frontline workers, persons recovered and recovering from the virus and their families.
The case of Matilda Agamu, a heavily pregnant woman in the Upper East Region, as well as reports in sections of the media that the frontline workers and many COVID-19 recovered and recovering patients, are stigmatised and discriminated against is worrying and disturbing. Stigmatization against anyone, especially the frontline workers who have dedicated their lives to help fight the disease is appalling. These unfortunate reports could adversely affect the fight against the disease.
What is a Stigma?
In the context of health, social stigma, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics of a disease. This may include persons being labeled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, as well as some losing their status because of a perceived link with a disease.
Besides it being a barrier to health-seeking behaviour, stigma affects the adherence of treatment across a range of health conditions especially persons infected by COVID-19, which the WHO notes could affect them negatively, and their caregivers, family, friends, and communities. People who do not have the disease but share other characteristics with this group may also suffer from the stigma.
Some causes of Stigma
The uncertainties of people about the disease are quite understandable since the disease is fairly new with many unknown issues surrounding it. The WHO notes that people are afraid of the disease because not much is known about it. The lack of knowledge of the disease manifests as fear towards persons recovering, recovered, frontline workers, and their families leading to stigmatisation.
Similarly, myths, misinformation, and fake news on COVID-19 especially on social media, as well as the manner in which information and news reports on COVID-19 are carried, to some extent contribute to exacerbating the confusion, anxiety, and fear among the public. Some misinformation about the disease ‘only affecting people with underlying health conditions’, the inability of ‘the disease to survive in humid weather conditions’ or ‘wearing facemask blocks oxygen supply to the body’ are but few examples.
Lamentably, these factors in addition to existing socio-cultural and political issues have fuelled harmful stereotypes, leading to the social stigma of persons recovering and those who have recovered from COVID-19 disease.
Effects of Stigma
Recent media reports of some police personnel being discriminated against by food vendors among others, because one of their colleagues was diagnosed with the disease, indicates that social stigma seriously undermines social cohesion. It also prompts possible social isolation of frontline workers and persons who recovered and those recovering from COVID-19 as well as their associates and caregivers.
Moreover, the Stigma according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) can drive persons with symptoms into hiding and avoid seeking health care and adopting healthy behaviours.
Furthermore, social stigma could also result in more severe health problems and difficulties, which could erode Ghana’s gain in managing the pandemic. Stigmatisation ultimately hurts everyone by creating fear, anger, and disaffection towards frontline workers and persons recovered and recovering from COVID-19, since they may suffer rejection, denial of healthcare, housing, and even face physical violence. The psychosocial impact on individuals, families, workplace colleagues, and communities can be devastating. Victims of stigma may feel worthless, helpless, disheartened, and despondent thereby curtail their potential to contribute to society.
It is now evident that stigma in relation to COVID-19 poses a harmful consequence to Ghana’s response to winning the fight against the pandemic. This is why it is imperative to address the issue of social stigma associated with the pandemic, to help people, communities, and community members build trust and resilience.
Besides Government efforts to strengthen the health sector, efforts to understand the disease itself, and building trust in a reliable health service delivery that shows empathy and offers genuine care to those affected, it is important for individual and collective responsibility and ownership for citizens to keep safe and resilient by adhering to the safety protocols and seeking accurate information on the trends of the coronavirus.
Another area to improve is how we communicate on COVID-19. The appropriate channels of communication coupled with the proper choice of words are critical in supporting people to take effective action to help combat the disease and to avoid fuelling fear and stigma. For instance, when talking about the coronavirus disease, certain words (i.e suspect case, isolation, victim), the language which perpetuates existing negative stereotypes, and strengthens false associations and misconceptions between the disease and other factors should be discouraged.
Creating an enabling environment is needed in order to share facts on the disease, in order to clear misconceptions, and misinformation. It is instructive to note the efforts of the Upper East Regional Office of the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to engage Mr. Bernard Akumasi and Ms. Matilda Agamu, (COVID-19) survivors, as Regional COVID-19 Ambassadors.
During this time, the NCCE has done a lot of work on the Stigma through media engagements, social media campaigns and several street announcements nationwide on stigma. While commending the Commission for undertaking rigorous campaigns to sensitise the public on COVID-19, Ghanaians are advised to stop the stigma and adhere to the guidelines set by the Ghana Health Service (GHS) and the Ministry of Health.
Citizens are still encouraged to adhere to all safety protocols to help stop the spread and contain the disease. These include:
- Observing physical distancing of at least 1-2metres when you are in the public spacing;
- Avoid handshaking
- Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap under running water for at least 20 seconds.
- Cover your mouth whenever you cough or sneeze with a tissue and dispose of the tissue in a closed bin, and then wash your hands.
- Always wear a nose mask, particularly when leaving home.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects or surfaces such as remote controls and doorknobs.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Call the designated health lines: 112, 0509497700 & 0558439868, for necessary assistance or support if you develop fever, cough, or when you have difficulty breathing.
Efforts by the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) in partnership with the COVID-19 Private Sector Fund, the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC), the Ghana Psychological Association, with the Ghana Medical Association and the Global Media Alliance to intensify public education on reducing the stigma associated with persons who recover and those recovering from COVID-19 is worth mentioning. NCCE staff has been trained by the Ghana Psychological Association to hone their civic education delivery skills in relation to stigmatisation and this was funded by the Ghana Covid-19 Private Sector Fund and the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation.
The ‘Let Love Lead. End The Stigma’ Campaign which has been fighting the stigma and discrimination against COVID-19 of recovered persons, frontline workers, and their families, shows that collectively we can work together to end the stigma in the country.
The Management of Multimedia Group’s bold step and the alacrity with which they acted when some of their staff tested positive for the disease is commendable. Their action and that of other personalities in the society is a positive boost to efforts of fighting Covid-19 stigma.
While being intentional and mindful of our communication on any platform, we should never forget our obligation to be empathetic and show solidarity to persons, families, and communities affected by the disease.