The current pandemic is leaving many of us anxious and worried. Uncertainty and the unknown shake our basic life routines, we loose our life structures, leaving us feeling confused and lost. Confusion and loss can create a negative imagination and this is fear. The fear of contagion and the virus can impact on our psychological responses.
Right now, we know Covid-19 has separated us, divides families, jobs, and cities; stripping our existence as social human being. Our lives has been disrupted in body, mind and spirit.
Coronavirus has occupied our thinking, in news, radio, tv and social media, with frighting death statistics and daily updates. This constant exposure of news can result in heightened anxiety with an immediate effect on our mental health. The constant feeling of threat can deeply effect our psychology response. The fear of contagion may lead us to become over-anxious and less accepting of the 'normal' such as being tactile, hugging or visiting others. Our moral judgement becomes harsher and our social attitudes more conservative during these times. Outcries on social media and news outlets show that people are more ready to judge and condemn behaviour that until yesterday was 'normal' - it is amazing how quickly the jump to the new moralising behaviour becomes.
Sadly, researchers have found that stigma has worsened the suffering from every major infectious disease epidemic in our human history, and no doubt, it will certainly play a role in current Covid-19 pandemic. Remember when AIDS and HIV occurred among us, who were the group of people we judged and discriminated against?
Stigma is an evolutionary response that our mindset has ingrained to our physical response: we will distance ourselves from others who could infect us. This whole suite of response is called 'parasite avoidance' , defensive strategies to prevent ourselves from contracting infection disease (reducing infection risk). The reactions are what make us feel threatened by signals of sickness, such as coughing, vomiting or sneezing; whether or not these signals indicate an actual threat to our own health.
Since humans are social beings that have evolved to live in big groups, 'parasite avoidance' modifies our interaction with people when infections occur to minimise the spread of the disease, resulting spontaneous social distancing.
The response could be quite harsh!.
There is also a moral as well as physical element. We tend to believe that 'bad things happen to bad people'. There is so called 'karma' - that misleads us into thinking that people who are infected by the disease may have done something wrong to deserve it - i.e. they may have not followed the advice from the government, didn't wash their hand long enough, didn't social distance enough, or led a somehow unhealthy life etc. This belief is psychologically comforting, helping us to believe that we are in control of our own life. It tells us that if we do everything right, we WON'T become infected. Yet, we simply don't live in this a just world: we can do anything right, we wash our hand for 30-60seconds, instead of 20 - and still become infected with Covid-19.
Research shows stigma causes harm to our physical and mental health. Stigma can take forms of social rejection, gossiping, physical violence, or rejection of services. People who experience stigma from others can experience heightened depression, anxiety, stress, substance misuse or can even lead to suicide.
Even people who don't experience stigma from others have their perception negatively affected - perhaps they have seen 'sick' people and judge this as sickness. This can lead to anxiety and stress. People who are infected, maybe internalise this stigma that maybe they did something wrong to be infected with this virus. Especially, with Covid-19, people who infected are medically isolated which maybe cause a greater distress; to them and to their family and friends.
Stigma impacts on everybody, to the extent that not only to the people who infected with the disease also to people who have an actual or perceived association with the disease. With Covid-19, at the beginning of this year, racism directed toward certain ethnicity, where this virus started.
Social distancing not social isolating
Education is the most popular tool to breakdown stigma. Education can deconstruct the stereotype. We know our immune system varies from individual to individual which means not everyone is affected to the same degree. In this regard, news and social media can help to lift the stereotype; Covid-19 doesnt discriminate, from celebrities like Idris Elba or Tom Hanks, to our Prime Minister- Boris Johnson - we all can get infected.
In this regard therefore, we all play an important role in removing the stigma during a pandemic. Indeed, we can all try to be resilient by remotely socially supporting each other - sending a text or calling your family or neighbour, reconnecting with others, 'virtually' having house party using apps.
We can check remotely on our family, friends or neighbours. We also can think of talking openly about the mental health struggles we are all facing - this opportunity to talk to others about stressors including stigma can promote coping and mental wellbeing.
Stigma divides us and turns us against each other but pandemics remind us how connected we are all. Even thinking about a situation like a pandemic can make people value conformity; we share our vulnerability and in this situation this becomes our solidarity. It is the Coronavirus we are fighting - not the people.