Covid-19 misinformation continues to fuel negative stigma in South Africa

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A funeral parlour staff member in personal protective gear prepares a grave for a Covid-19-related burial.
A funeral parlour staff member in personal protective gear prepares a grave for a Covid-19-related burial.
Felix Dlangamandla
  • The UN has hosted a round table discussion around misinformation and the stigma around Covid-19.
  • Misinformation continues to fuel the negative stigma attached to testing positive for Covid-19.
  • Covid-19 stigma is damaging in that it can make people reluctant to seek medical attention or even disclose their status.

Misinformation and disinformation around Covid-19 continues to fuel the negative stigma attached to testing positive for the virus, and this needs to be challenged.

This emerged from a roundtable discussion on the stigma attached to contracting the novel coronavirus, and the disinformation that fans the flames, hosted by the United Nations on Monday.

United Nations Resident Coordinator in South Africa Nardos Bakele-Thomas said it was sad that Covid-19 pandemic had created an environment for misinformation to grow.

The "scourge of stigma" has been fueled by misinformation and needs to be fought, Bakele-Thomas said.

Panelists all agreed that the stigma attached to Covid-19 was damaging and would lead to people being reluctant to disclose their status, or even be afraid to seek treatment if necessary.

READ | Covid-19 stigma: Woman forced to flee Middelburg home after family rejects her

It is for this reason that the UN has been calling for solidarity, to push back against Covid-19 stigma.

Referring to the negative effects of stigma, Gushwell Brooks, of the South African Human Rights Commission, said one only had to look at South Africa's history.

Brooks spoke about HIV/Aids plight which continues to plague the country and makes people reluctant to either know or share their status because of negative sentiments towards people with the virus.

In June, News24 reported that the stigma surrounding Covid-19 affected a Middelburg woman who was forced to leave her home after testing positive.

Nomawethu* told News24 that she did not know how or where she contracted the virus, but when she found out about her status, she immediately called her sister for comfort.

Instead, her sister told her that her clothes would be waiting for her at the gate.

READ | People who spread fake news are either criminals or just stupid - social media experts

"I had no one. The word spread that I was infected and no one wanted to help me. I was even threatened. I could see that if I stayed, I would be victimised. I don't know what people would have done. I packed my bags and moved to Cradock to get help," she said.

Since recovering, Nomawethu said people still turn away or run to the other side of the street when they see her. People don't want to be around her.

Speaking about the spread of misinformation and disinformation, Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird explained that groups had used the Covid-19 crisis to drive their own agenda.

They had done this by deliberately putting out disinformation to fuel stigma and create fear.

He added that there wasn't a "better time for people who want to disinform and undermine democracy".

However, it is of the utmost importance that misinformation and disinformation is challenged and corrected to protect fundamental rights.

*Not her real name.

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