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Shame in the time of Covid


By Engela Duvenage


“We don’t want to work with him again, ever. He had the virus.”

“I’m not going near her, because her husband’s sister has the disease!”

“If I have to self-isolate because a colleague has Covid-19, everyone will think I have it too.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone that my wife is ill, because they might fire me.

“I am not even going to get tested because people will think I have it.”  

“If I get it, I’ll end up alone in the hospital and die.”

“He walks around all weekend, not following the rules. His disobedience is going to cost me my job.”

These are just some of the statements that social workers and other professionals working in the fruit sector have encountered among management and employees alike in recent months. Many say they are reminded of the stigmatisation attached to HIV and aids, and even tuberculosis. They find that it is borne out of misinformation, poor communication and education, and the real fear that many people have of losing income, and in turn their ability to support their families. It however often causes people to go “underground” and not to get screened or timeous medical help.

According to the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumours and myths.

Western Cape industrial psychologist and human resource expert Anneke Strauss advise management teams to do everything in their power not to fuel stigma or to shun people, but to ease their employees’ fears.

She advises:

  • Don’t overreact or comment every time someone just coughs slightly near you.
  • Set the example, and don’t judge or shun people. Be caring and empathetic towards someone who has contracted COVID-19. Be careful not to overreact with negative language and phrases when you receive such news about employees.
  • Check-in with regular phone calls to find out how the person is doing. Ask about symptoms, how they are coping, and how you can help.
  • Give regular feedback to his or her immediate colleagues or work team on progress being made. Be specific about the person’s symptoms, and whether they are still able to do simple tasks such as doing washing or not. This is especially important when someone is only experiencing light or no symptoms. By following the progress of the disease, team members can learn from it. It is an opportunity to reinforce that not all is doom and gloom and that not everyone with Covid-19 will end up with serious symptoms or die.
  • Do not only focus on worst-case scenarios but also share positive stories. Constantly emphasize the very high percentage of people who have already recovered, and who did not even need hospitalisation.
  • Remind others that far fewer people have so far been hospitalised than was initially projected.
  • Be clear that we are all at risk, and that if someone becomes ill, they did necessarily not do something bad or shameful to deserve it.

Words matter

According to a pamphlet co-authored by among others the World Health Organisation and Unicef, language matters a great deal when one is talking about Covid-19. They recommend a people-first language that respects and empowers people in all communication channels, including the media. It advises that one should try not to use words such as “suspected cases” and “isolation” as these might fuel stigmatization through their negative meaning.

“Using criminalising or dehumanising terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us,” says the pamphlet entitled “A guide to preventing and addressing social stigma”.

Other advice from the pamphlet include:

Do talk about “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19”, “those who are recovering from COVID-19” or “people who have died after contracting COVID-19” or “someone who may have COVID-19”. Don’t refer to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims”, “COVID-19 suspects” or “suspected cases”.

Do talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” the virus. Don’t talk about people “transmitting COVID-19”, “infecting others” or “spreading the virus”. These words imply deliberate intention and assign blame. This feeds stigma, undermines empathy, and potentially makes people more reluctant to seek treatment or attend a screening, testing, and quarantine.

Do speak accurately about the risk associated with COVID-19, based on scientific data and the latest official health advice. Don’t repeat or share unconfirmed rumours. Avoid words that generate fear, such as “plague”, “apocalypse” etc.

Do talk positively and emphasise that prevention and treatment measures are effective and that there are simple steps people can do to keep themselves and loved ones safe. For most people, this is a disease they can overcome.

Don’t emphasise or dwell on the negative, or messages of threat. It is important to reaffirm the message that we need to work together to keep those who are most vulnerable safe.

Do emphasize the value of adopting protective measures, and that it is effective to prevent acquiring the virus. Emphasize early screening, testing, and treatment.

Do talk about the disease, but do not attach location or ethnicity to it (by for instance referring to it as a “Wuhan or Chinese virus”). The official name of the disease, COVID-19 was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatisation. “Co” stands for “Corona”, “vi” for “virus” and “d” for disease, with “19” referring to the year 2019 when it first emerged.


Learn more:
International Labour Organisation

US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention
Harvard Business Review

Image: World Health Organisation Covid-19 Campaign



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