Past experiences in the world have shown that pandemics tend to provoke stigmatization. Fast spreading diseases such as Ebola, the bubonic plague, Asiatic flu, SARs 1, leprosy, HIV-AIDS among others, have triggered stigmatization. Covid-19 is no different. Stigmatization goes against many ethical cultural beliefs, Christian moral standing and medical ethics. Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship” highlights concrete values and solutions to de-stigmatization of others.
The concept of Covid-19 stigmatization
Researchers have elucidated ways in which people construct cognitive categories and link them to stereotyped beliefs for stigmatization. Erving theorized that social stigma is an attribute that socially discredit an individual by classification as the “undesirable other” by society. Amnesty International viewed stigmatization as a global trend towards angrier and more divisive social stance (sic), in which the notion of human dignity is under vigorous and relentless assault from powerful narratives of blame, shame, and scapegoating. The Oxford Dictionary describes stigmatization as a work of disgrace or infamy; a sign of severe censure for justification of violence on a person or people. As such, stigmatization becomes a tool of division and justification for violence, for target blame, shame and dehumanization in social strata. The stigmatized person is reduced from a whole and usual person to a tainted or discounted one.
Being stigmatized therefore, has debilitating psychological effects of shame which gradually corrodes the wellbeing of humanity damaging the sense of self-worth. Simply put, stigmatization disgraces people creating outcasts with lasting psychosocial consequences that persist longer than the infection itself. This is why Pope Francis calls for sowing seeds of peace and walking alongside…the outcasts (FT, 2).
Gretchen outlines varieties of stigmatization starting with self-stigma which occurs when a person with Coovid-19 internalizes public stigma and withdraws. Pope Francis acknowledges that every threatening situation to humanity breeds mistrust leading to withdrawal (FT, 26). This has direct influence on peoples’ coping styles. It leads to label avoidance where the sick person decides not to seek health treatment for fear of being stigmatized. Then there is stigma by association extended to someone linked to a person with Covid-19 disease. The infected person, their families and friends are all stigmatized and isolated forcing them to live a solitary life.
Stigma can also be structural particularly when institutions do not have policies or societal structures in place that hold accountable perpetrators of human abuse through stigmatization. According to Hatzenbuenhler and Link, structural stigma is the “societal-level conditions, cultural norms, and institutional practices that constrain the opportunities, resources, and wellbeing for stigmatized populations.” In this sense, perpetrators are not held accountable for labelling, thereby, enhancing the behavior. In this current pandemic, for instance, news reports document instances of stereotyping, harassment, and bullying directed at people perceived to be of Asian descent profiled as sources of the virus. Similarly, Africans in China were evicted from their residences while wrongly and racially profiled as Covid-19 super spreaders. Moreover, essential workers, persons exposed to the disease, those from quarantine were also perceived as spreaders. People are treated as annoyances becoming aggressive towards them (FT, 222). Pope Francis recognizes that intolerant attitudes towards others are on the rise (FT, 42). Behaviors like these deprive humanity of a sense of belonging to a single human family (FT, 30). Stigmatization fosters hate that will last for a long time even after Covid-19 if not transformed.
Stigma has been associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, gossip, myths and fears about disease and death. Social stigma arising from fear and anxiety about a disease generates negative attitudes toward others and has sometimes led to death. Fear is false security, and Covid-19 exposed this, as more stigmatization only increases our inability to resolve the issues affecting us all.
Outcomes of Stigmatization
Edmund Husserl captures stigmatization as leading to heightened social discrimination, indignity, and violation of human rights. People diagnosed with COVID-19 get ostracized that neighbors may stigmatize them. Consequently, when stigmatized they are driven to hide symptoms, illness, avoid seeking healthcare, and abandon adopting healthy behaviors to avoid continued discrimination. As a result, they contribute to a more severe health crisis and ongoing transmission, with negative impacts on effective control of pandemics. In Liberia, experiences of resentment and disenfranchisement were reported. In Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, COVID-19-related stigma has demonstrated barriers to contact tracing and treatment. Other cases reported across the globe included discrimination in USA, European countries, China and India.
Social stigmatization threatens the fundamental structure on which human relationships are built. Society flourishes where there is peace and moral values. As a result, de-stigmatization necessitates a multilayered strategy involving individuals, NGOs, along with government policies in beginning anew. Fratelli Tutti offers valuable conscientious values in fraternity underpinning the importance of solidarity and our interconnectedness as humanity in starting anew. Such solidarity can be achieved by focused political will and populace moral change. Although educating the public on Covid-19 is important, nevertheless, transforming structures to hold offenders liable is equally significant. For instance, the USA president Biden on 06/20/2021 signed the hate crime bill against stigmatization of Asian community thereby holding culprits legally responsible. De-stigmatization calls for change to fraternal respect of the dignity of each person. A call reiterated by Pope Francis when he argues that every human person in sickness and in health has a worth (FT, 108).
Pope Francis emphasizes the need for dignity, unity and a renewed hope in managing issues that debase humanity (FT, 229). He underscores integration of differences as a guarantee of a genuine and lasting peace (FT, 217). The pope encourages us to create a new culture of care for one another, doing to others what we would want done to us with openness of heart (FT, 57,60). The openness of heart journey that was taken by St Francis which transcended differences in language, culture and religion for love of humanity (FT, 6). In his view, love exudes compassion and dignity (FT, 62). We should therefore not allow anyone to go through life as an outcast (FT, 68) but take a step forward toward a new style of life (FT, 35), seize the great opportunity and express our innate sense of fraternity (FT, 77). We should persevere in love, restore dignity to the suffering and the outcasts (FT, 71). It is noteworthy to state that the Pope justifies imperatives for moral activities towards each other as key to dignifying humanity because we possess intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations (FT, 213).
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