Stigma, blaming and shaming in pandemic

No one should have known Bella Lamilla’s name. But within hours of her diagnosis as Ecuador’s first coronavirus case, it was circulating on social media along with photos showing the retired schoolteacher unconscious and intubated in a hospital bed.
File Photo (Reuters)
File Photo (Reuters)

Chennai

Her large, close-knit family watched in horror as a dual tragedy began to unfold: While Lamilla fought for her life in intensive care, strangers began tearing apart her reputation online.
“Knowing she had it, the old lady didn’t care and went all around,” one person commented on Facebook. “It was ugly,” said Pedro Valenzuela, 22, Lamilla’s great-nephew. “It hurt a lot.” The spreading global pandemic has tested the competing interests of public health and privacy, with thousands of individuals experiencing both physical illness and the less-visible stigma that can come with it. While there are stories about good deeds and people coming together, the coronavirus is also bringing out another side of some people: Fear, anger, resentment and shaming.
In India, doctors have reported being evicted by landlords worried they’ll spread coronavirus to other tenants. In the town of St. Michel in Haiti, people stoned an orphanage after a Belgian volunteer was diagnosed. In Indonesia, an early coronavirus patient was subjected to cruel innuendo suggesting she contracted it through sex work.
Psychologists say the desire to identify and castigate those who are ill harkens to an age-old instinct to protect oneself and relatives from catching a potentially fatal disease — and a belief, however unfounded, that those who get it bear some responsibility.
“Illness is one of the fundamental fears humans have been dealing with their entire evolution,” said Jeff Sherman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not really surprising they would be hostile toward someone they believe is responsible for bringing illness into their community.”
Patients elsewhere whose identities became public have endured similar attacks. Minutes after Indonesia announced its first two cases, the names of Sita Tyasutami and her mother leaked online with their phone numbers and home address.
Hundreds of messages flooded in.Generic response People shared photos of Tyasutami, a 31-year-old professional dancer, shimmying in a feathered Brazilian samba bikini, and spread baseless speculation that she contracted the virus after being “rented” by a foreign male client. “My face is everywhere now, I can’t hide it,” she said.
Studies show that when people link disease to behaviour, they are more likely to blame the sick and ostracise them. Researchers have found people harbor negative attitudes towards individuals with a wide range of illnesses, with HIV/ AIDS often at the top. But even those with seemingly lesser conditions can experience stigma.
A survey in Hong Kong several years after the 2003 SARS outbreak, another coronavirus that killed nearly 800, found a small portion of the population still stigmatised those who had contracted the illness. “Generally speaking, stigma of infectious diseases can be as devastating to the infected individuals as the diseases themselves,” the authors wrote.
“Blame is a natural response to this,” said Patrick Corrigan, a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “That’s what’s feeding this.” Mental health experts say that as more celebrities and politicians announce they have the virus, the rebuke many coronavirus patients have felt could ease. Actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson won plaudits for publicly discussing their cases, putting a pair of well liked faces to COVID-19.
— Additional reporting by Victoria Milko, Edna Tarigan and Michael Weissenstein
Associated Press

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