Stigma and misinformation from COVID-19 is taking a human toll

Stigma and misinformation from COVID-19 are such clear and present threats to global health that they are causing as much concern to policymakers as the pandemic itself. These attitudes and behaviours are killing people and causing harm through hate speech, disinformation, discrimination and xenophobia.

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Photo: Rita Franca/NurPhoto
Peaceful demonstration against racism, xenophobia and fascism, in Praça da Liberdade, in the center of Porto, with the presence of thousands of people and groups, without due precautions such as social distance due to the pandemic of the covid 19. This demonstration has I intend the latest events in America with the death of George Floyd. On June 6, 2020, in Porto, Portugal. Photo: Rita Franca/NurPhoto

According to a new study by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine, a team of international infectious disease researchers identified “over 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories, communicated in 25 languages from 87 different countries”. As a result of sharing this type of misinformation, “approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalized and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus”.

In an effort to counter stigma, discrimination and misinformation, the UN has set up dedicated websites that provide accurate, science-based and verified information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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, fuelled by misinformation. While we have fairly reliable statistics on the number of positive cases and deaths from the pandemic, no similar tally is being kept of people who have suffered as a result of stigma and misinformation. However, according to United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres, as COVID-19 spreads, “a tsunami of misinformation, hate, scapegoating and scare-mongering has been unleashed.”

New York-based UN diplomats 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.” The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an infodemic as “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,” the UN diplomats explained in a statement, “COVID-19 has created conditions that enable the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence and divide communities.”

When people are stigmatised or discriminated against because of a disease, it affects millions of others around the world. History is replete with this form of discrimination – ranging from stigma against people from some African countries because of Ebola to Asian and Middle Eastern countries owing to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The COVID-19 infodemic has spread like wildfire on social media since the first outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019. Lockdown restrictions have disrupted physical contacts 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 and calculated to create fear and confusion.

The UN’s concern is 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. It is important that nations counter stigma and misinformation to avert their toxic force heightening the risks of conflict and human rights violations.

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, social influencers and people from all walks of life to speak out with force.

How can ordinary citizens assist in the fight against misinformation? They should use information about COVID-19 from reputable sources only, including the WHO, instead of the unverified stories often consumed through social media. The risk of relying on social media and other unverified sources is that popularity is frequently and often mistakenly associated with the truth.

In an effort to counter stigma, discrimination and misinformation, the UN has set up dedicated websites that provide accurate, science-based and verified information on the pandemic, and has teamed up with partners to launch the ‘Verified’ and ‘Pause’ initiatives around the world. It has also 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”. These UN campaigns seek to persuade people to ‘pause and verify’ information before sharing emotionally charged content on social media.

In South Africa, the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa has sounded the same alarm against stigma, with Health Minister Dr Zwelini Mkhize declaring a war against stigmatising people who have contracted COVID-19. At the onset of the outbreak, the government 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.

The UN recently launched a campaign against COVID-19 with three primary goals. The first goal is to fight the virus. To this end, 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 continue to emphasise that such steps, despite the disruptions they cause, must be sustained until therapies and a vaccine emerge.

Second, the UN will tackle the devastating social and economic impact caused by the pandemic. We will emphasise the need to fight the impact of the virus for all humanity, with a focus on the most affected people: women, older people, youth, low-wage, small and medium enterprises (SMMEs), the informal sector and vulnerable groups.

Third, we will emphasise the need for better recovery under the 2030 Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) roadmap. The UN will show that now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. We will also advocate for a recovery that leads to different economies.

Until 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 this invisible enemy stalks the world. Countering the scourge of misinformation with accurate, science-based evidence and verified information from trusted sources is equally as urgent and important as fighting the pandemic. All of us have a part to play in this fight to save lives and ‘build back better’.

Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the resident coordinator of the United Nations in South Africa. This is an edited version of a story first published by the Sunday Independent.

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