Saturday, 16 January, 2021

Tackling Social Stigma Against Health Workers

Dr. Shyam P Lohani


It is understandable that every new disease creates a sense of confusion, anxiety and fear among people and more so in case of a situation reeling from uncertainties. With the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, more healthcare institutions are involved in the treatment and management of the disease throughout the world. This corresponds to the rise in the number of healthcare professionals involved in managing different aspects of the disease.
The high infectivity and moderate mortality of COVID-19 has caused worldwide psychosocial impact by causing mass hysteria, fear, depression and economic losses. The forced quarantine applied by nationwide lockdowns to combat COVID-19 may result in panic attack, anxiety, obsessive behaviours, paranoia, and depression as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run. At the same time, we have been observing a considerable increase in incidents of racism, violence and phobia against particular communities during this pandemic. The spread of infodemic via different social media has had further psychosocial effects on people.

Psychosocial impact
The role of healthcare workers in the times of pandemics is crucial. Nevertheless, frontline healthcare workers are at a higher risk of being infected with the killer virus disease. They are also more likely to experience adverse psychological outcomes such as burnout, anxiety, fear of transmitting as well as contracting infection, depression, increased substance-dependence, and PTSD. As a key player in dealing with the pandemic, more reports are coming up about them facing a problem of stigma and social discrimination both at workplaces and communities. Unfortunately, infected healthcare workers are suffering immensely from stigma and discrimination throughout the country.
Healthcare workers oftentimes are stigmatised as a vector of contagion. Some are physically abused while others are verbally abused. Reports show that their family members have even been evicted from their home. Such incidents of violence result in deterioration of quality of care at already overstretched healthcare facilities.
The unknown factors associated with the origin of the outbreak have been related to the level of stigma. The unknown and uncertainties sparked fear, confusion and anxiety among the public and as such, these factors elicited social stigma and discriminatory behaviour against people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus such as frontline healthcare workers.
Discrimination can erode the social cohesion of our communities and cause certain groups of people to be ostracised. This can lead to a further spread of the virus as people might be prompted to hide their illnesses and refrain from seeking healthcare in fear of being discriminated against.
Almost eight months have passed since the emergence of the pandemic. We now have sufficient information about the virus, modes of transmission and how we can protect ourselves from contracting the disease. Despite all this, the social stigma present within our communities has not dissipated entirely. Therefore, it is important for all of us to do our part and help fight the virus and associated stigma.
The first and most important thing in dealing with stigma and discrimination is to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of those who are seeking healthcare, who are taking care of patients and who are part of any contact tracing. It is important to maintain patient confidentiality and his/her privacy in order to avoid discrimination against any particular ethnic or religious groups. The information about the infected should only be given to relevant authorities for further contact-tracing and carry out necessary investigation.
Fake and sensational news travels faster than wildfire. So, it is essential for all of us to help stop fake news from spreading. As a responsible member of the community, we should only share accredited or verified news about COVID-19. The threat of fake news has always been present in our society. It is more prevalent in the state of pandemic. Nowadays, internet is a dominant source of information. With people having an easy access to this information domain, they have more access to all sorts of information. The fake news, incorrect or inaccurate information may cause more harm than good. Stigma is further exacerbated by the inaccurate knowledge. Therefore, it is always advisable to solicit information only from reliable sources before sharing with others.
De-escalation of rumours
It is the responsibility of a good citizen to speak out against negative behaviours that only encourage the stigmatisation of groups of people. The misconceptions, rumours and misinformation about COVID-19 should always be discouraged as early as possible. Those involved in promoting negative behaviour and discrimination should be dealt promptly to de-escalate rumours and misinformation.
Our frontline healthcare workers have remained dedicated and risked their lives to fight against this pandemic. Few hundreds of them have already been infected with the virus while working with the coronavirus patients. They have worked long hours, sacrificed their personal time with the loved ones in their family, and showed empathy to the infected persons. Therefore, we should recognise their contributions and show a sense of gratitude to their efforts, time and dedication instead of shunning them. The stigma and discrimination against healthcare workers in general and infected healthcare workers in particular not only cause deterioration in the quality of care at the healthcare institutions but also affect negatively in our endeavours to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

(A Professor, Lohani is the founder and academic director at Nobel College. 

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