Growing fears of COVID-19 associated stigma and discrimination in Africa

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread rapidly across the continent, social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against persons perceived to have been in contact with the virus is also on an alarming rise.

I recently watched a comic viral video showing people running out of a public bus for dear life as if a bomb had gone off. However, it was not a physical explosion but a loud sneeze from one of the passengers that had sent alarm bells among the others who run away leaving the bewildered passenger alone without even the driver to commiserate with.

Symptoms of the common cold will no longer be referred to as “common” as they replicate that of the new deadly coronavirus (COVID-19). As funny as this video was, it is a true replica of how COVID-19 patients, survivors and care givers in several African countries are suffering from discrimination and stigma associated with this pandemic. It is no longer funny!

In a guide to preventing and addressing social stigma associated with COVID-19 released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2020, three reasons account for this unfortunate occurrence.  Firstly, it is a disease that’s new and for which there are still many unknowns; secondly, we are often afraid of the unknown; lastly, it is easy to associate that fear with ‘others’.

Lessons have still not been learnt from stigmatization as a result of infections from HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, leprosy and even Ebola which wracked the continent not too long ago. Sadly, the stigma and discrimination associated with this 21st century pandemic, is rather leading to the rapid spread of the virus. Good health and wellbeing (SDG3) is under serious threat, compounding Africa’s already unique challenges related to achieving the Sustainable development goals (SDGs).

To gather information that might be helpful for understanding the stigma, DevGoals Africa spoke to Adamu Adams, Nana Ama Ansah and Daniel Okello from Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda respectively. They were asked to share their observations and sentiments. “We would rather hide COVID-19 related symptoms than risk stigma and discrimination. Stigma kills faster that COVID-19.” What they assert is true but very disturbing since such a stance will make it more difficult to combat this virus.

The WHO guide to preventing and addressing COVID-19 related social stigma, also recommends three tips to address and avoid compounding social stigma in addition to “creating an environment in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively.” These include; avoiding wrong word choices that may have a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatizing attitudes when talking about the disease, becoming intentional and thoughtful when communicating on social media and other communication platforms, and ending the disturbing trend of misinformation and rumours associated with the new coronavirus.

COVID-19 is spreading like wild fire across the continent fueled by stigma and discrimination.  No one knows when this fire will burn themselves or their loved once. The enemy is not the infected or affected. The enemy is the virus, the COVID-19 virus that continues to baffle even the most intelligent minds. Until we see the back of this virus, we must uncover it by preventing discrimination and stigma which only leave us more vulnerable. Yes, let’s “social distance” and practice safety protocols. But, let’s desist from distancing emotionally and showing a lack of empathy for victims.

Source: Devgoals Africa by Matilda Nyarkoah Dennis