Published: 30th June 2021
Shun the stigma: Ensuring social distancing doesn't literally distance the youth
An unwanted outcome of the raging pandemic are the social taboos tagging along with it. This sense of fear has stretched to such an extent that victims of COVID are experiencing boycotts
An alarming aspect of the tightening grasp of COVID’s second wave is the ever-increasing hesitancy among people to get tested in many parts of India. Even though the number of cases keeps increasing and social media buzzes with reports of morbid deaths, there is a high prevalence of people in India who are still turning a deaf ear to the third COVID wave. The consequence of which is higher resistance against COVID testing and government protocol. Moving forward, it is important for all of us to understand the gravity and intensity of the issues around resistance. This is nothing but social stigma. This sense of fear and resistance is called COVID phobia. COVID phobia or the fear of the disease is probably spreading at a faster rate than the disease itself. One of the strongest reasons for this hesitancy with regards to testing despite being aware of the symptoms is the fear of COVID itself. This behaviour, in a way, is responsible for spreading the virus in a greater way. Those with this specific testing hesitancy often fail to realise that there cannot be a single protocol applicable for all. The very thought of contracting COVID-19 and the possibility of social ostracism is the real trigger behind people hitting the panic button and the consequent hesitancy.
An unwanted outcome of the raging pandemic are the social taboos tagging along with it. Unfortunately, this sense of fear has stretched to such a great extent that victims of COVID-19 are experiencing social boycotts and even exiled from their respective communities. It leads to mental health problems. Mental health-related public stigma negatively impacts the act of seeking help more among the young than adults. Youth with mental health problems are more likely to experience greater social distancing from the public. Research shows that, compared to adults, it is the youngsters who do not seek help for mental health problems due to characteristic fears about lack of confidentiality, peer pressure, a desire to be self-reliant and lack of knowledge to recognise mental health problems or simply, a lack of awareness.
Human beings are social entities. We as individuals are deeply social and depend on one another not only to satisfy our physical needs, but also for the need for social affiliation and validation. COVID protocols that require people to remain socially distanced from one another appear to have created an undesirable storm perfectly designed to activate the negative mental health consequences of ostracism. Ostracism — being ignored and excluded — is a particularly negative social experience because it simultaneously threatens several basic needs: The need for belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. Imposed distancing only increases social isolation and particularly retards people’s will power to face a particular problem. Young masses experience this problem at a greater level.
Kalpana Sahoo and Pratishtha Bhattacharaya | (Pic: XIM University)
Another pertinent reason is that youngsters are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with the disease. In the same way, the taboo of loneliness, feeling of separation from family members could start as more youngsters experience it during lockdowns and it becomes a widely discussed social issue. In this connection, youth must take the lead to break the labels.
Looking into the cause of the stigma associated with COVID-19 shows three main reasons. First, many youngsters are still unaware of its consequences, intentionally and unintentionally. Second, we are often afraid of the unknown — COVID negative people experience more panic, anxiety and apprehension about the future and third, social media and technological devices add to the existing fear. It is understandable that there is confusion, anxiety and fear among the youth. Unfortunately, these factors are also fueling harmful stereotypes.
Despite these social issues, the youth should take the moral responsibility to combat the stigma and taboos in society. One critical solution is correct education and communication about COVID-19 can minimise anxiety. It guides the youth to take effective action to combat the disease and to avoid fuelling fear and stigma. Information campaigns targeting youth and the general public could be a key step towards reducing mental health stigma. An environment needs to be created in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively. So in communication and discussion, words matter. When talking about Coronavirus, certain words (like suspect case, isolation and so on) and language might hold a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatising attitudes. These can increase existing negative stereotypes or assumptions, strengthen false associations between the disease and other factors. Here, it is important to distinguish between a person and the disease. We must focus on the disease, not the person. We recommend a people-first language that respects and empowers the youth in all communication channels, including the media. Words used in media are especially important because these will shape the popular language and communication around COVID-19.
There is a greater responsibility for the youth to work together to help each other with the right kind of communication. The youth must carry an important responsibility which is being scientifically informed and helping our society and community be informed and educated too. And assist our community away from misinformation, stigma and discrimination.
Kalpana Sahoo and Pratishtha Bhattacharaya are Assistant Professors (OB), School of Human Resource Management, XIM University, Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are their own