Covid-19 stigma is linked to lower reporting and compliance with physical distancing

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  • Feelings of shame and guilt caused by contracting Covid-19 may influence people's choice to report their infection
  • The study to test this was conducted in Italy, South Korea, and the United States
  • Trust in their governments' response also impacted participants' compliance with physical distancing 


A new study has found that feelings of shame resulting from contracting Covid-19 were negatively associated with physical distancing compliance and self-reporting potential contacts.

The research published in Frontiers in Psychology investigated how trust in government and the emotions of shame and guilt explained individuals’ compliance with physical distancing, and their intention to report their infection to health authorities, acquaintances and friends in Italy, South Korea, and the United States of America.

Finding feelings of guilt and shame

The researchers enrolled 597 participants from the US, 606 from Italy, and 693 from South Korea.

Participants filled out a questionnaire that used a seven-point scale, where one means they strongly disagree and seven that they strongly agree.

Feelings of shame and guilt were measured and participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they would feel ashamed and guilty if they got Covid-19. 

They were also asked about their trust in their governments' handling of the virus. Participants were asked about their intentions to report their infection to health authorities, acquaintances and friends, their concerns about the virus, and political orientation.

The results show a lack of compliance linked to guilt

The findings of the study show that shame and stigmatisation associated with contracting Covid-19 showed lower compliance with physical distancing and informing potential contacts in all three countries. 

The study also showed that people who trusted their government’s response to the pandemic were more likely to report their infection to health authorities and potential contacts.

Italy and South Korean participants fared bettered in following physical distancing regulations if they trusted their government‘s plans, while in the US, trust in government did not translate to physical distance compliance. The authors of the study say this could be because of the actions of the previous US government whose actions were contemptuous of scientific advice and physical distancing.

According to the researchers, values of hierarchy and interdependence from governments shaming people into obedience may backfire and make authorities less likely to trace and test new cases, while people may be less likely to comply with regulations.

"In our research, we identified that roles of trust in governments and self-conscious emotions (shame and guilt) were determinant factors for people's compliance with physical distancing and intentions of reporting infections to health authorities or acquaintances,” says co-author Dr Chanki Moon in a news release.

“When governments and decision-makers make policies and regulations in relation to Covid-19, they should be aware that stigmatising or blaming people for contracting the infection could potentially backfire. The governments' efforts to boost trust are probably the key to overcoming the coronavirus crisis,” he says.

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