Some days ago, I went to a Chemist Warehouse store at Glenquarie in Australia to buy some medicines and hand sanitisers. After purchasing, I joined a long queue of people waiting to pay.
Suddenly, a young woman of Chinese origin standing in our line sneezed several times. Everyone looked at her and some broke away from the queue and stood aside, saying "the Chinese woman is spreading coronavirus".
The young woman felt ashamed and left the place without buying medicines. The incident to my mind points to several issues, such as a fear of unknowns among people, discriminatory behaviour, stereotypes and negative perceptions. Sociologists call this social stigma. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), such social stigma and fear related to Covid-19 may undermine the provision of care, support and treatment for possible Covid-19 patients.
The fear and stigma related to Covid-19 persist globally, including in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi media frequently reported on how social stigma and fear prevented healthcare workers in many public and private hospitals from providing care, support and treatment to patients with flu-like symptoms.
As a consequence, some patients have died without treatment.
The situation has worsened due to scarcity of personal protective equipment at hospitals.
Fear and social stigma at the family and community levels may also contribute to making the situation worse. It may people from taking patients with flu-like symptoms to hospitals for treatment.
Fears of being diagnosed with Covid-19, marked by adverse reaction from the family and community members, may also lead people to hide their illness or symptoms of Covid-19, and prevent them from voluntarily seeking testing, support and treatment of the disease. Moreover, fear and social stigma can lead Covid-19 patients to run away from hospitals.
These patients may act as super-spreaders who, according to epidemiologists, interact more than others and connect with many others, and thus have more potential to spread the disease.
Denying treatment at hospitals may make it difficult to trace people who may have had close contact with super-spreaders. Such fear and social stigma associated with Covid-19 may challenge the contact tracing actions of the government, thereby limiting Bangladesh's response to Covid-19.
Fear and social stigma may act as a barrier to care, support and treatment for the (potential) Covid-19 patients. As such, it is crucial to reduce such anxieties.
According to the WHO, misconceptions and a lack of knowledge of Covid-19 can contribute to stigmatisation and discrimination against individuals with Covid-19, and will constrain prevention efforts. Therefore, it is urgent to disseminate adequate and accurate information about the transmission and prevention of Covid-19 for countering social stigma.
The mass media can play an important role in disseminating positive health messages related to Covid-19.
Second, the government can strengthen its capacity to collect clinical specimens of potential Covid-19 patients from their homes and monitor the testing initiative.
Third, the government needs to reinforce contact tracing activities so that Covid-19 patients cannot play an active role in spreading the disease.
Fourth, the government can provide healthcare workers with adequate training and personal protective equipment which may decrease their fear and anxiety, increase their capacity to manage Covid-19 patients, and provide care, support and treatment to them, thus avoiding stigma.
If these strategies are implemented well, it may be possible to minimise fear and social stigma related to Covid-19. Otherwise, this fear and social stigma will continue to impede the provision of care, support and treatment for Covid-19 patients, and may exacerbate the coronavirus situation in the country.
Md. Nazmul Huda is a researcher and an academic in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Email: [email protected]