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Preventing Cultural Stigma During A Global Health Outbreak

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The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is currently causing disruptions in travel and trade around the globe. Regardless of whether or not you are living in or traveling to a country where there has been a rise in infections, it’s important to always take precautions to stay healthy—and be mindful of the fact that global health epidemics can lead to social and cultural stigma.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has this to say about what we can do to prevent unwarranted discrimination due to health fears:

"The risk of getting coronavirus disease 2019 is currently low in the U.S. due in part to quick action from health authorities. However, some people are worried about the disease. Fear and anxiety can lead to social stigma towards Chinese or other Asian Americans. Stigma and discrimination can occur when people associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease (for example, Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans living in the United States).

Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people instead of the disease that is causing the problem. We can fight stigma and help not hurt others by providing social support. We can communicate the facts that being Chinese or Asian American does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.”

The Washington Post has noted multiple reports of anti-Asian sentiment due to the virus: "On college campuses, at a music conservatory, in Chinese restaurants, among the ranks of a famous dance troupe and on streets every day, Asians have reported a rise in aggressions micro and macro." Fear and discrimination are more likely to amplify misinformation than they are to prevent the spread of any disease. The coronavirus may have begun in China, but as it spreads to other countries, the risk of infection is the same no matter your cultural or ethnic background.

The CDC recommends the following actions for public health officials and communicators, but anyone can do their part to help discredit false information and bias:

  • Speak out against negative behaviors, including negative statements on social media about groups of people, or exclusion of people who pose no risk from regular activities.
  • Be cautious about the images that are shared. Make sure they do not reinforce stereotypes.
  • Engage with stigmatized groups in person and through media channels including news media and social media.
  • Share the need for social support for people who have returned from China or are worried about friends or relatives in the affected region.

So how can you stay healthy? Here are some tips from the CDC:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.
    • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
    • Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to  others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
    • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
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