COVID-19 does not discriminate. Let’s prevent stigma that could cause a surge in disease


Bump elbows in greeting and keep a distance between yourself and others. It’s medical advice. We also need to be aware of not fuelling stigma around COVID-19.

With community transmission now present in South Africa, everyone has to take extra care to follow the preventive steps that lower the risk of spread and transmission of COVID-19. First we do the simple act of washing our hands regularly with soap and water for 20 seconds. Then we are encouraged to keep a distance of at least one metre, not travel internationally and locally, and not join in on activities where there are 100 people or more.

Address the fear, to avoid stigma – discrimination just makes matters worse

As we go through this healthcare emergency to try avoid COVID-19 virus spreading among our population, our wellbeing faces another threat that is also about human behaviour. You see someone from a specific country, someone who has travelled or even someone who coughs or sneezes. What happens? A fight or flight response kicks in. This fear, when not checked, can create stigma, shame or discrimination around illnesses. In this case, contracting the 2019 coronavirus or being diagnosed with COVID-19.

While fear can sometimes bring people together, it also makes matters worse than they have to be when there is stigma or discrimination. How does stigma make things worse? With the steps our country is taking, there is an attempt to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. But, when someone feels scared, humiliated or not accepted, that can make them hide their symptoms or illness. This means they do not receive the right medical care, follow good health habits or take the recommended actions to self-isolate. Given the highly contagious nature of the COVID-19 virus, this can have dire consequences for everyone.

Have the facts, help spread the good advice

So how can we overcome this fear and prevent discrimination? It’s vital to understand how COVID-19 spreads and that everyone is at risk, not just certain people. Always know the latest facts and keep following the necessary steps that consider the good health of everyone. Each of us has a social responsibility. We need to follow the rules our country has in place, and help educate and enable all people to protect their health by accessing health services and advice. And we need to have empathy in the way we interact with others. It comes down to not making people feel like they have done something wrong. The COVID-19 virus does not discriminate and neither should we.

COVID-19 in the workplace: make employees feel safe and free from stigma

Workplaces are safe when measures are in place: social distancing (keeping one metre away, not shaking hands), hygiene and sick-day measures. When someone contracts COVID-19, specific risk assessments and self- and home-care steps are recommended. Recovery from COVID-19 takes place in isolation. Once a healthcare professional clears a person, they can return to work and to other activities – still doing the same things as everyone else to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Treating someone differently because they developed COVID-19 is a form of discrimination that we have to guard against. In this light, it is important that employers not only manage and reduce risk of transmission or allow for recovery among employees, but also protect them against discrimination. When you need to determine the risk of people working at your company becoming sick with COVID-19, never base this risk on race, their country of origin or the city they live in. As with any other health condition, the details of an employee’s health is confidential. So, while employers and managers must make others aware of an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 virus in the workplace, it’s vital to ensure complete confidentiality about people diagnosed with COVID-19.  

Avoid stigma and discrimination in the workplace:

  • Make sure everyone follows hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. Create an environment where employees are aware and see it as a responsibility to monitor symptoms.
  • If an employee meets the risk assessment criteria of “close contact” and is then diagnosed with COVID-19, discreetly assess the risk among other employees to see who came in “close contact” and could be at risk.
  • Actively encourage all employees who are sick to work from home or to stay home and not work. Make sure that contract workers have this same benefit.
  • If someone has a sick family member, keep it private, and monitor risk and symptoms in a way that works for everyone.
  • Every business will have its own plan of action. It’s easy for people to be labelled or to be separated in matters of health. This simply makes matters worse. Let’s make sure everyone is aware of the behaviours that prevent contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus, and that no one is treated differently – besides the recommended social distancing, of course.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.

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