Covid-19 Stigma Mirrors HIV, Say Infectious Disease Experts

By Sharon Lee | 16 June 2020

The positive aspects of Covid-19, like how most won’t get severe disease, is not highlighted in the media that amplifies bad news instead, feeding public fear and stigma.

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 — The stigma and discrimination surrounding Covid-19 presents similarities that parallel the HIV epidemic back in the 1980s, Universiti Malaya (UM) infectious disease experts said.

Prof Dr Sharifah Faridah Syed Omar, an infectious disease expert from the Faculty of Medicine at UM, observed a pronounced similarity between the coronavirus pandemic and the HIV epidemic, in terms of public stigmatisation and discrimination towards those who are associated with the viruses that cause the Covid-19 disease and AIDS respectively.

“I suppose that what we are seeing now is very similar to what they saw at the peak of HIV,” she told CodeBlue in an interview.

Echoing Dr Sharifah’s view, Dr Wong Pui Li, also an infectious disease expert from the Faculty of Medicine at UM, said: “It is very difficult not to draw parallels with the stigma seen during the HIV epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Dr Wong further explained that stigma and discrimination are part of the reason why not all of those who contracted HIV have been screened and treated, which in her observation, is also happening with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We see exactly the same thing in Covid-19. People hide the possibility of being at risk for Covid-19 from health care workers, and friends and family due to the fear of stigma and discrimination. They don’t get tested, and they don’t get treated.

“Stigma and discrimination stop someone from getting tested in the first place. They don’t want to know if they have it, because they think that their family and friends who are their support system, will no longer be there for them and shun them,” Dr Wong told CodeBlue in an interview.

Dr Sharifah also shared the same opinion as Dr Wong.

“The more discrimination and stigma that you get, the less likely people are going to come forward and present you with the disease for you to stop the transmission.”

Dr Sharifah Faridah Syed Omar, infectious disease expert from the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya

“I think it’s a universal thing with any infectious disease, but because of the scale of the disease like Covid-19 and HIV, we see similarities in terms of the stigma and discrimination,” said Dr Sharifah.

In another point of view, Dr Sharifah pointed out that the initial chaotic and perhaps overboard public health response towards the Covid-19 outbreak could have amounted to public fear towards the novel coronavirus.

“I think the other thing about Covid-19, especially in the beginning when we were not so sure about how (the virus spreads). We knew that it was infectious, but we weren’t sure whether it was airborne, or whether it was through droplets.

“So, we took the highest precautions in terms of health care workers, and we treated it almost like Ebola in terms of personal protection. I think that also contributed to the stigma and discrimination against Covid-19 positive patients, and not just them but also those suspected to have Covid-19,” she said.

Media Also Contributes To Covid-19 Stigma

Dr Sharifah further identified the media as another source that contributes to the stigma against Covid-19, stating that news headlines often enlarge the negative aspects of Covid-19 as a disease, but downplay or overlook the positive sides of the coronavirus, which creates a sense of fear for readers.

“They were swabbing the madrasah students and the headline was ‘85% of students were asymptomatic’ — the public will read that and it just causes a lot of fear, because people would be like ‘oh my God, 85% are walking around not knowing they have Covid-19 and they’re just going to spread it to everyone’, I think that’s what a lot of people will understand when they read the headline.

“But, the actual thing to take from that is that thousands (of) madrasah students were swabbed, but only a couple hundreds were positive, and in that few hundreds, the majority were asymptomatic, which means that even if you get Covid-19, there is an 80 per cent chance that you’re not going to get a severe disease, and that is a good thing,” Dr Sharifah emphasised.

Dr Sharifah was referring to news coverage of the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) statement on May 14 that 5 per cent of screened students, teachers, and staff from madrasah and tahfiz schools tested positive for the coronavirus. Out of those who tested positive, 85 per cent did not show any symptoms.

MOH reported that as of June 14, about 4 per cent (or 718 people) of 17,477 screened at tahfiz and madrasah schools tested positive. About 86 per cent of those who tested positive, or 620 people, did not show symptoms of Covid-19.

“The good points of getting Covid-19 are not highlighted — the fact that majority won’t get severe disease.”

Dr Sharifah Faridah Syed Omar, infectious disease expert from the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya

“Therefore, we need to be rational about these diseases, because if we keep highlighting the small numbers who get severe disease, the few children who get that very bad Kawasaki-like illness, taking those as your main stories and as your headlines, it’s just perpetuating the fear of Covid-19,” Dr Sharifah added, stressing that there needs to be a balance of good news and bad news to prevent the generation of widespread fear.

When asked about whether health literacy plays a part in the discrimination against Covid-19 patients in light of the recently published data by the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019, which revealed that one in three Malaysian adults has low health literacy, Dr Sharifah believes that low levels of health literacy may play a part, but “it’s also about what people want to see and believe, and what’s been pushed out there.”

“You can’t just say that because of low health literacy, then everything is justified. People are getting the information, I don’t think that people are discriminating and stigmatising because they don’t know. I don’t think that’s the only thing,” she said.

“Yes, knowledge is important, but at the same time, what kind of information are they getting? I think that contributes more compared to just being illiterate or not having that information.”

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