OPINION | Countering Covid-19 stigma and misinformation is part of the cure

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Nardos Bekele-Thomas (Supplied)
Nardos Bekele-Thomas (Supplied)

The UN is concerned that Covid-19 is breeding a global wave of stigma, discrimination, racism and xenophobia around the world, writes Nardos Bekele-Thomas.


When a 48-year-old South African school teacher in the City of Ekurhuleni tested positive for Covid-19, although she was still asymptomatic, she immediately went into self-quarantine at home, where she lived with her husband and two children. That ignited gossip from colleagues and friends.

In the early morning hours of Day 11 in isolation, she set herself on fire in her room because she couldn't bear the stigma and misinformation about the virus from people she thought would support and empathise with her. Fortunately, her family managed to rescue her, according to media reports. But the scars from the flames of attempted suicide will be with her for the rest of her life. Similar stories – some of them fatal, while still anecdotal – are gradually becoming common.

As Covid-19 spreads and kills people around the world, we find ourselves fighting a war that is even worse than the disease itself: stigma and discrimination fueled by misinformation.

As of 12 August, more than 746 000 people around the world had died of Covid-19 and about 20.5 million people had contracted it. There are no statistics on people who have suffered from stigma and misinformation. However, according to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, "as Covid-19 spreads, a tsunami of misinformation, hate, scapegoating and scare-mongering has been unleashed".

A group of ambassadors from 11 countries – including South Africa – accredited to the UN in New York recently conveyed the same concern, noting: "In times of the Covid-19 health crisis, the spread of the 'infodemic' can be as dangerous to human health and security as the pandemic itself."

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), infodemic refers to "an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it".

"Among other negative consequences, Covid-19 has created conditions that enable the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence and divide communities," the UN diplomats explained in a statement.

Discrimination

When a nation or a group of people are stigmatised or discriminated against because of a disease, it affects millions of other people around the world. History is replete with this form of discrimination: witness the stigma against people from some African countries because of Ebola, or Asian and Middle Eastern countries owing to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The Covid-19 infodemic has spread like wild fire on social media since the first outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019. It triggered discrimination against Chinese citizens. Ironically, even some African nationals resident in China also experienced the same stigma from their hosts.

Since then, the world has watched with alarm the proliferation of fake news and misleading videos with harmful effects on many lives.

Lockdown restrictions have disrupted physical contact among families, friends and colleagues. In turn, social media has filled the vacuum by accelerating the sharing of information, some in the form of misleading and harmful advice. While some sharing on social media is benign – often among friends, relatives and colleagues, most of it is just forwarding in the hope that the information is true and can help prevent the spread – some is deliberately malicious, calculated to create fear and confusion.

The UN is concerned that Covid-19 is breeding a global wave of stigma, discrimination, racism and xenophobia against certain nationals and ethnic groups. Lives are being scarified as people share misleading information. What is needed now, as stressed by the UN diplomats, is that nations counter stigma and misinformation because their toxic force is heightening "the risk of conflict, violence, human rights violations and mass atrocities".

What makes Covid-19 stigma harmful is that people who have contracted the virus may be reluctant to disclose their status even to friends, relatives or colleagues. They may also be afraid to seek treatment to avoid gossip and discrimination. For these reasons the UN is calling for solidarity and unity among countries to push back against Covid-19 stigma. This will no doubt require commitment from leaders, influencers and people from all walks of life to speak out with force.

How can ordinary citizens counter misinformation? They should use information about Covid-19 from reputable news sources, including the WHO, instead of the unverified stories consumed through social media, where popularity is frequently misconstrued as the truth.

Pause and verify

To counter stigma, discrimination and misinformation, the UN has set up dedicated websites that provide accurate, science-based and verified information on the pandemic. It has teamed up with partners to launch the "Verified" and "Pause" initiatives around the world.

These campaigns seek to persuade people to "pause and verify" information before sharing emotionally charged content on social media. The UN has developed videos, graphics and multimedia material that urge people to share only trusted and accurate, science-based social media content.

As the UN secretary-general insists, we need to "flood the internet with facts and science while countering the growing scourge of misinformation, a poison that is putting even more lives at risk".

In South Africa, the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa has sounded the same alarm against stigma. Health Minister Dr Zwelini Mkhize has declared a war against stigmatising people who have contracted Covid-19, warning that "if left unchecked, it [stigma] could discourage people from seeking help if they suspect they have contracted the virus".

The government has also developed a dedicated website with a wealth of information, including advice on checking symptoms, contact details of health centres and places for additional information, statements by the minister and daily updates of Covid-19 statistics.

Three goals

The UN has just launched a campaign against Covid-19 with three primary goals: to fight the virus, to tackle its devastating social and economic impact, and to emphasise the need for better recovery under the 2030 Development Agenda.

We will communicate the need for aggressive, early testing and contact tracing, complemented by quarantines, treatment and measures to keep first responders safe, combined with measures to restrict movement and encourage social distancing.

We will emphasise the need to fight the impact of the virus for all humanity, with a focus on the most vulnerable people and economic sectors. We will show that now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient to pandemics, climate change and other global challenges.

Unless global citizens understand that stigma, misleading and inaccurate information on Covid-19 can be as lethal as the disease itself, more lives will continue to be at risk as the invisible enemy stalks the world.

Countering the scourge of misinformation with accurate, science-based evidence and verified information from trusted sources is as equally important as fighting the pandemic. Everyone of us has a part to play in this fight to save lives.

 - Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the resident coordinator of the United Nations in South Africa.


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