From stigma to solidarity
First they came for Chinese and Asian-looking people. Faced with an invisible threat, race — and people’s perceptions of its physical features — became a proxy for identifying those who pose danger.
Thus, a drunk Korean man was left on the streets of Manila, photographed but not assisted, with people fearing that he might be carrying what was then called nCoV.
Thus, a Filipino man was punched in a supermarket in Lombardy, Italy, by a local who committed the double fault of mistaking our “kabayan” for a Chinese, and mistaking the Chinese as being to blame for the pandemic.
Since those episodes—which, frankly, feel like ages ago—the virus has spread around the world, with Europe, not Asia, now the continent with the most number of confirmed cases and deaths. Wuhan is ending its lockdown while the rest of the world is continuing, commencing, or contemplating theirs.
With the scaling up of testing and the global nature of the pandemic, the virus is no longer as closely linked to China, but with the prospects of contracting it hitting closer and closer to home, people’s emotions have arguably sharpened.
Now, they have come for those reported (or rumored) to be COVID-19 positive.
Thus, a 35-year-old man was blocked from returning to his own house in Tondo, with his neighbors putting up a barricade on their street.
Thus, people who died of COVID-19 are being turned away by crematoriums and funeral homes, their bodies staying in hospitals for days.
Now, too, they are coming for health care workers.
Thus, a hospital utility worker in Sultan Kudarat was attacked by five individuals; his hospital lamented that “he was helpless as these vile individuals splattered Zonrox (bleach) all over his face.” Thus, on that same day, a nurse in Cebu City had chlorine thrown at him.
Thus, health care workers all over the country are evicted from their homes, banned from business establishments, barred from their own barangays, stigmatized in social media.
To some extent, people’s fears are understandable. Nobody wants to get infected with COVID-19, let alone die of the virus. People’s reactions today are in line with how humans have behaved during epidemics past. As Daniel Defoe wrote, London’s Great Plague in 1665 “took away all Compassion… for the Danger of immediate Death to ourselves, took away all Bonds of Love, all Concern for one another.”
However, irrational fear leads to misguided responses that go beyond the principles of infection control. In fact, individuals who test positive for COVID-19 do not pose any danger as long as they quarantine themselves. Ditto with health care workers, most of whom do not even carry the virus. And even if they do, they are aware of the corresponding protocols.
Alas, these misguided responses are undermining public health efforts. As we have seen in other conditions like TB or HIV, having stigma attached to a particular diagnosis will make people more likely to hide their status — or avoid testing altogether. In turn, this will make it likelier for people with COVID-19 to die from the illness — or contract it in their communities.
In addition, it adds to the burden that patients, their families, and health care workers are already facing. “It’s a dangerous time to be a health worker,” lamented Dr. Bryan Albert Lim, an infectious diseases specialist in Cebu. “Either you die from the virus, or you die from the senseless violence of the misinformed public.”
And of course, it frays the social cohesion we badly need today, creating antagonistic relations between the larger community and people who need their support the most.
Fortunately, not everyone is falling into these instinctive ills. Like the doctor who calls his loved ones to inform them of his difficult decision to volunteer for the frontlines, like the celebrity who uses her influence to raise funds for PPEs, like the residents of the mountain town who refused relief goods, asking that they be given to those who need them more, we see people — government officials and private citizens alike — rising to the challenge of joining the frontlines, helping the frontliners, and making themselves useful in this difficult moment.
We may not have a cure for COVID-19, but if all practice kindness, social solidarity, and empathy, we already have what it takes to overcome the pandemic.
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