During containment, we saw how the pandemic was causing new forms of social solidarity. In addition to the applause for caregivers and rainbow imagery, just staying home was a demonstration of a collective responsibility to protect vulnerable people. It was a sacrifice for the “greater good”, to which everyone adheres except one. well-publicized minority.

However, in our currently researching – in which we explore public attitudes towards COVID-19 and social distancing – we find that people stigmatize those who might have the disease or transmit it. Basically, this stigma is based on what sociologists call “other”. This is where we define, often negatively, certain individuals or groups based on their difference from us. Otherness is at the root of stereotypes and discrimination.

Most, if not all, infectious diseases are to some extent stigmatizing precisely because coming into contact with people with the disease can make us sick. But the fact that COVID-19 is a new disease with no cure or vaccine – and (compared to the flu) has a relatively high case fatality rate – adds to the fear factor that often leads to otherness. Stigma can also, as we see in this pandemic, potentially undermine disease control and control efforts.

How the stigma plays out

Our research shows that what were once relatively harmless behaviors like coughing and sneezing are now experienced as significant, dramatic and anxiety-provoking events. For example, one participant, who has a long-term cough because he is a smoker, reported feeling like he was treated like a “leper” while shopping.

Not wearing a mask in public divides public opinion – but face coverings will soon become mandatory in UK stores. Zoteva / Shutterstock

Another participant, suffering from hay fever, said he felt “on edge” about going out for fear of sneezing and worrying about what people might think or say. Many of our participants also described strong reactions to the coughing and sneezing of others in public spaces:

It’s interesting how we’ve gone from being polite and saying “blessings” to now having to defend people’s coughs and sneezes. If someone coughs, it elicits a very strong negative reaction towards them.

Often these reactions were expressed as anger towards those who came too close or did not adhere to new social norms, such as sneezing into the elbow. We have also seen widespread condemnation of those who are perceived to violate social distancing rules, such as getting too close to others in stores or on sidewalks. Of course, where distancing and hygiene guidelines are blatantly flouted, frustration and anger are arguably both expected and justified.

There is also a broader form of alteration between people with different interpretations of the guidelines, or between those who have differing opinions on whether the guidelines are too conservative or too insufficient. For example, in our research we found a general division between those who wanted to “live quite normally” as soon as possible and those who thought things were going too fast. Those who took advantage of or stretched guidelines were seen as “reckless” and a source of “frustration”.

As we continue to break out of confinement and reintegrate socially, the rules for how to behave – and what we can and cannot do in public – become more and more complex. We can expect new forms of social division and social stigma to emerge as a result.

The wider negative impact

The concern is that this division will worsen during the pandemic as measures continue to ease. The real problem is that official guidelines have often lacked clarity. It’s no wonder the government’s recent equivocation around face masks is a source of contention. Conversely, clear guidelines can help reduce otherness and division by reducing confusion and uncertainty about what is and is not acceptable.

There is clearly a need to avoid social division. Research on past pandemics has shown how stigma can seriously delay detection and treatment efforts, cooperation with contact tracing and isolation measures, and efficient allocation of resources for disease prevention and control. In today’s climate, if stigma is associated with having COVID-19, some people may be reluctant to report symptoms, take a test, or enter information into a contact tracing app.

For example, in research we conducted in May We found that one of the initial misconceptions some people had about contact tracing apps – and one of the reasons they wouldn’t consider using them – was that the app could allow users to ” specifically identify others (or to be identified themselves) as having COVID -19 (although this is in fact not possible).

One participant said of the app: “It’s like getting a horrible black mark. I could look and look like “my friend, my neighbor has COVID”. Another participant felt that “it could cause hate crimes as well, finding out ‘oh, you know, I got it from that person'”.

These views reveal implicit assumptions that COVID-19 is something shameful, socially undesirable, and a potential cause of discrimination and social exclusion. And they demonstrate the power of stigma to undermine efforts to control the virus through the government’s Track and Trace program.

However, there are tips to reduce the stigma. Previous research on other diseases such as flu pandemic and HIV / AIDS, as well as advice from organizations like Unicef and the World Health Organization, offer a number of lessons. Avoiding military metaphors (such as the “war” on COVID-19 and the fact that there are “victims” of COVID-19, tackling the disinformation surrounding the disease and not allowing the identity of a person to be defined by having COVID-19 can all have a positive effect.The conversation

Simon nicolas williams, Senior Lecturer in People and Organization, Swansea University and Kimberly Dienes, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Mental Health, Manchester University

A copy of their peer-reviewed study published in BMJ Open is now available here:

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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