From leprosy to COVID-19, how stigma makes it tougher to battle epidemics

From leprosy to COVID-19, how stigma makes it harder to fight epidemics

Fearing stigma, an HIV-positive woman in Kenya who misplaced her mom to AIDS recounted her story anonymously to well being care employees.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

MUMBAI, INDIA—One day on the finish of April, dentist Azmera Shaikh examined optimistic for the novel coronavirus. That afternoon, feeling feverish and achy, she and her mom, who had additionally examined optimistic, descended from their condominium right here to board an ambulance to the hospital. They had been startled to discover a dozen or so neighbors lined up with cell phones in hand. Pictures and movies of their departure quickly circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook. “We were entertainment,” Shaikh says. “We were the joke of the town.”

A volunteer with the nonprofit Doctors for You, Shaikh had seen the concern and mistrust introduced by the pandemic whereas working within the slums of japanese Mumbai. Some areas had not allowed her group to arrange screening camps for concern that residents could be assumed contaminated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But she didn’t count on her educated, middle-class neighbors to behave equally.

Soon, her complete household was in quarantine. The guidelines made it troublesome for her father and brother to place out rubbish and get groceries. Yet neighbors didn’t assist. Their angle, Shaikh says, was “more traumatizing than the illness itself.”

As the coronavirus unfold early this yr, folks around the globe responded in related methods. In Nepal, well being care employees had been thrown out of rental residences. In Haiti, hospitals treating COVID-19 sufferers had been attacked. In the United States, many individuals prevented East Asian–dominated neighborhoods, linking the virus with folks from China, the place the outbreak started.

Some medical doctors in Chennai, India, prevented getting examined due to the difficulty they may face with neighbors in the event that they turned out to have the virus, notes medical anthropologist Mitchell Weiss, a professor emeritus on the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. As medical doctors, they need to know higher as a result of testing is vital to lowering outbreaks, he says. “This is the toxicity of stigma.”

Yet these responses would have been acquainted to our ancestors. From historic occasions, people have feared illness and shunned these thought to have it. But at the moment, when we’ve got a bigger arsenal of instruments to battle illness, together with testing, contact tracing, and therapy, these previous responses can undermine public well being efforts. Stigma not solely encourages folks to cover sickness and keep away from therapy, but in addition intensifies affected person stress and reinforces socioeconomic inequality.

The historical past of epidemics, together with these of leprosy, cholera, and HIV, reveals how expensive stigma could be—each to particular person sufferers and to societies as an entire. Such prices don’t often present up in standard epidemiological research, Weiss says, however are a part of what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls “the hidden burden” of illness.

Relics of previous illnesses pepper the Indian port metropolis of Mumbai. A 160-year-old temple to Sitladevi, the goddess of smallpox, remains to be open to worshipers. Nineteenth century crosses to keep off bubonic plague are sprinkled round Catholic neighborhoods. And a sprawling 130-year-old leprosy dwelling nonetheless stands in what was as soon as the outskirts of colonial Bombay.

The phrase “stigma” initially referred to a mark on the physique. Later it got here to indicate a metaphorical mark of shame. Sociologists outline stigma because the social devaluing of people that possess a trait seen as damaging or deviant, akin to a bodily or psychological incapacity and even an ethnicity. Almost each sense of the time period comes collectively in leprosy.

The affiliation is historic: The biblical e-book of Leviticus depicts leprosy as a manifestation of religious sin, calling folks with the situation “unclean” and directing them to stay “outside the camp.” (Biblical leprosy seemingly referred to different pores and skin circumstances, however the illnesses had been conflated.) In India, the place the illness is assumed to have originated, historic Hindu texts proscribed marriage into households that had a member with leprosy. In Europe, folks with the illness had been solid out of city or despatched to leprosariums.

Even at the moment, some folks with leprosy stay sequestered, like this lady in a leprosy colony in New Delhi (left). But the actions of leaders such because the Dalai Lama, proven right here touching a person with leprosy (proper), can cut back the stigma of the illness.


“In infectious disease, stigma is rooted in an exaggerated fear of contamination,” Weiss says. Some psychologists counsel stigma could have developed underneath evolutionary strain to guard the social group from contaminated members. (The same speculation proposes that the emotion of disgust advanced to forestall people from ingesting pathogens.) Avoiding folks with infectious illnesses in all probability did assist historic societies mitigate epidemics, Weiss notes. “In situations of plague or other highly contagious diseases, these fears may not be unreasonable. But how you act on those concerns may become unreasonable or unwarranted.”

History suggests stigma typically sweeps past reasonable issues about contagion. In the mid to late 1800s, folks within the United Kingdom panicked over leprosy, seeing the illness in racist phrases, notes medical historian Shubhada Pandya, who’s related to the Acworth Leprosy Museum in Mumbai. An 1862 article in The BMJ mentioned the international locations of Asia had been “infested” with leprosy “in proportion to the physical and moral degradation of their people.” An 1898 colonial legislation empowered officers in India to spherical up and isolate homeless sufferers in establishments that had been typically segregated by intercourse to forestall procreation.

In 1873, Norwegian scientist Gerhard Armauer Hansen remoted the bacterium that causes leprosy. During the mid to late 20th century, researchers developed remedies and the illness grew to become much less frequent. Still, folks with leprosy continued to be shunned. Patients themselves internalized the stigma: Just final yr, researchers who interviewed residents of a leprosy colony in Ghana reported that even individuals who had been cured most popular to remain within the colony as a result of they had been ashamed of their illness and anticipated to be ostracized at dwelling.

Health-related stigma can typically have a “compounding effect” on other forms of prejudice, exacerbating inequality, says Wim van Brakel, medical director of NLR, a world nongovernmental group to battle leprosy in Amsterdam. For instance, in accordance with a 1996 ethnographic research in Thailand, many older folks related leprosy with begging, in all probability as a result of prior to now, ostracism and incapacity threw sufferers with the illness into poverty and finally begging. A equally outdated view has formed perceptions in India. “The image people have is that if I get leprosy, I become like that maimed beggar at the traffic light,” van Brakel says.

The shiny spot is that serving to folks with one facet of their plight could alleviate others. In a randomized managed research of leprosy sufferers in Indonesia from 2011 to 2014, van Brakel discovered that enhancing their socioeconomic state of affairs with loans and coaching helped cut back their perceptions of social stigma and increase their participation in society.

Yet uprooting previous views stays a problem. Even in 2018, a survey of individuals in Cameroon indicated that one-quarter of 233 respondents believed leprosy was brought on by a spell. Most knew the illness was curable, however greater than one-quarter mentioned they’d not marry somebody who had had it. In India, legal guidelines making the illness grounds for divorce had been eliminated solely final yr.

Quantifying concern

In some international locations, most individuals mentioned they wouldn’t purchase greens from a vendor who had HIV. But folks in different nations had been much less fearful.

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Even the illness’s title has come to imply outcast: We describe these we shun as “lepers.” Scientists tried to vary the title to Hansen’s illness, however the previous title caught. Ashim Chowla, former head of the nonprofit Lepra India, says folks at the moment nonetheless flinch when he tells them he has been handled for leprosy. “The identity never really goes away.”

Chowla, now CEO of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance, admits to some schadenfreude seeing folks in his middle-class neighborhood activate one another at the moment due to COVID-19. Indian elites “who never thought they would get the diseases of the poor,” he says, are getting a style of “the ostracism that leprosy patients have faced for thousands of years.”

Leprosy has lengthy epitomized the stigma related to illness. But within the 1980s, a virus emerged that rapidly grew to become the brand new “gold standard of stigma,” Weiss says: HIV. At first, AIDS, the illness brought on by HIV, was seen as a well being menace largely for homosexual males, injecting drug customers, and intercourse employees. The preliminary response was marked by ethical panic, just like previous views of leprosy. Some spiritual teams noticed the sickness as a curse or punishment. People with the illness confronted discrimination and authorities neglect in most international locations, says Laura Nyblade, an professional on HIV discrimination with RTI International.

Social scientists like Weiss had used survey and interview strategies to measure stigma and discrimination in psychological sickness and leprosy, creating “stigma scales” to quantify it. With the advance of HIV, researchers started to develop related scales for that virus. In 2008, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) launched the People Living with HIV Stigma Index as a software to generate proof for advocacy. By November 2017, greater than 100,000 folks dwelling with HIV had been interviewed in additional than 50 languages by educated interviewers who themselves had HIV. Interviewers requested, for instance, whether or not somebody had been insulted for being HIV-positive or been denied entry to well being care.

Studies confirmed stigmatization burdened folks with HIV psychologically, as Shaikh and her household skilled with the coronavirus. Stigma additionally precipitated folks to cover their illness, lessened adherence to therapy, and worsened well being outcomes. People with HIV who perceived excessive ranges of social stigma had been 2.four occasions as prone to delay coming into care till very ailing, in accordance with a meta-analysis of 10 research printed in 2017. One in 5 folks dwelling with HIV prevented going to medical amenities as a result of they feared discrimination, in accordance with information collected from 2011 to 2016 in 19 international locations. And University of Washington researchers present in 2019 that Black girls dwelling with HIV who scored excessive on stigma measures additionally reported extra days of missed remedies and better viral masses.

All these findings counsel stigmatization can spur the unfold of illness. In some settings, stigma may very well be chargeable for 35% to 51% of toddler infections with HIV as a result of it decreased moms’ adherence to therapy, in accordance with a 2017 modeling research by Nyblade and colleagues.

People already dwelling on the margins undergo much more. In one research in Russia, 30% of feminine intercourse employees mentioned that they had been refused medical care due to their work, which places them prone to contracting HIV. In a research in Argentina, 40.7% of transgender girls, who’ve larger charges of HIV, mentioned they prevented clinics due to their transgender id. According to a 2015 survey in New York City, African migrants with undocumented standing selected to not disclose HIV standing to households and communities, fearing they may lose wanted social help. Like different marginalized teams, they “stayed hidden and disengaged with health care,” the research mentioned.

As with leprosy, social attitudes had been intensified by authorized discriminations that by no means totally went away. Some elements of HIV transmission, akin to not disclosing that one is contaminated, are nonetheless criminalized in 72 international locations, together with the United States, in accordance with UNAIDS. Thirty international locations ban folks’s entry or residence on the premise of HIV standing.

“A critical lesson from HIV is that addressing stigma from the outset of a pandemic can be critical to an effective response,” Nyblade says. “If people fear stigma, they will be reluctant to get tested, disclose they have symptoms, and seek care.” More than 30 years after the illness emerged, she says, “stigma continues to be a major barrier to ending the HIV pandemic.”

A 1909 illustration displays the vilification of Irish prepare dinner Mary Mallon, who unwittingly unfold typhoid.


Stigmatization typically deepens present fault strains based mostly on class, caste, race, or any “outsider” standing. Those dynamics could be self-perpetuating: Marginalized teams who stay in crowded circumstances with much less entry to well being care are sometimes hit tougher by illness—after which are blamed for it.

Migrants are particularly susceptible to vilification. Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant prepare dinner in early 1900s New York City, was dubbed “Typhoid Mary” for being an asymptomatic provider of the typhoid micro organism. After infecting a number of rich households, the place some members died, she was pressured into quarantine in a hospital on an island close to town, the place, she complained in a letter to her lawyer, she was “a peep show” for guests. In late 2010, Dominicans blamed migrant employees for a cholera outbreak that started when Nepali peacekeepers inadvertently launched it to neighboring Haiti. Researchers from Emory University discovered that Dominicans linked the outbreak to character flaws or unhygienic habits amongst immigrant Haitians, who confronted structural issues together with lack of entry to protected water and sanitation. One yr into the epidemic, the federal government could have worsened the state of affairs by making it tougher for immigrants to get the authorized standing wanted for medical insurance.

COVID-19, too, could turn into related to particular teams, says medical anthropologist Alexandra Brewis-Slade of Arizona State University, Tempe. “It is politically expedient and useful to be able to blame and distract,” giving politicians an excuse for public coverage failures, she says. Stigmatization “discourages investment [in combatting disease] because it devalues the people who would benefit most,” she says. “Stigma is often beneficial to those in power.”

Nyblade agrees that “COVID-19 may provide an excuse to further stigmatize already stigmatized groups.” In India, the place a Hindu nationalist celebration is in energy, many individuals focused a world Muslim convention held within the nation in March with the social media hashtag #CoronaJihad. The Bombay High Court not too long ago dismissed police prices filed in opposition to attendees for spreading the illness.

Indeed, many incidents within the present pandemic echo acquainted patterns of animosity, particularly in areas the place the coronavirus has newly entered. Apartment dwellers on the outskirts of Mumbai, the place COVID-19 instances have been rising, not too long ago tried to throw out resident nurses due to concern that the nurses would deliver the virus dwelling. In the Indian state of Karnataka, 35 migrant employees who had returned to their village from Mumbai in June had been quarantined. When seven examined optimistic, the group vanished in a single day. “They feared reprisals,” says Edward Premdas Pinto, a public well being activist on the Centre for Health and Social Justice who works within the area.

In one rural village, Pinto says, an aged man returned from the hospital to search out that his household had fled the home, fearing his return. He hanged himself. And within the United States, an advocacy group has recorded about 2600 hate-related incidents in opposition to Asian Americans between March and August, together with spitting, racial slurs, and even assault. Many abusers particularly referred to the coronavirus.

Months after her traumatic expertise together with her Mumbai neighbors, Shaikh believes attitudes have improved as folks have turn into extra aware of COVID-19. For these working to curb stigma, previous pandemics can provide some classes.

In leprosy and HIV, good details about mode of transmission and accessible remedies helped enhance attitudes. HIV additionally confirmed that “sunlight itself can be a cure” for stigma, Weiss says. “Bringing attention to the existence of stigma enables people to [look for] areas where they can make their system function more effectively.” A powerful well being system is vital, too, say Indian public well being activists, as a result of it builds belief in medical authorities.

A girl will get a free COVID-19 take a look at from a well being care employee who reaches from inside a cell testing bus in Hyderabad, India. Some well being care employees and folks with COVID-19 in India face ostracism and animosity.


As seen with leprosy, language issues, which is why WHO in 2015 beneficial in opposition to utilizing international locations, areas, animals, or folks when naming viruses. Language stays a flash level with the coronavirus, with U.S. President Donald Trump often referring to “the China virus.” In March, some public well being specialists tried—and failed—to transform the prescription for “social distancing” into “physical distancing” due to the potential connotations of the unique phrase in societies riven by class, caste, and ethnicity. (In psychology, the social distance scale is a measure of racial or ethnic prejudice.)

Brewis-Slade cites New Zealand as a mannequin for its “clear leadership, communicated with empathy and compassion.” The nation has seen its share of prejudice in the course of the pandemic; East Asians and traditionally oppressed Pacific Islanders have confronted racist feedback. But the federal government has rapidly condemned such incidents whereas explicitly encouraging testing.

“People who we know have tested positive to COVID-19 are to be commended; they have done their bit” to guard others, Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director of well being companies, mentioned in a press convention final month. There is “no shame or blame” in being contaminated with a virus, he mentioned.

Pinto additionally stresses the significance of balanced media protection. Indian TV information channels have stoked concern with a singular deal with the rising variety of infections, he says. “Talking about recovery rate and success stories would help.” U.S. basketball participant Magic Johnson’s 1991 disclosure of his HIV-positive standing, for instance, helped change public perceptions of the illness.

Hearing from different folks locally could be much more efficient than listening to specialists or celebrities, Nyblade says. In RTI-led analysis in Ghana and Tanzania, she and colleagues arrange coaching workshops and different actions in 5 of 10 chosen clinics after which in contrast attitudes among the many well being care employees towards folks with HIV. Learning from educated friends reasonably than specialists had extra influence. “Seeing and hearing people who are ‘just like you’ tell their stories can help dispel myths and misconceptions and break down the ‘othering’ process,” Nyblade says.

That sort of contact could also be much more necessary throughout an outbreak, when isolation and quarantine are needed however could compound suspicion. In Mumbai, Shaikh discovered that neighborhood outreach—going door to door with native volunteers and spending time with households—helped change attitudes within the slum the place she works. Initially, nobody would admit to having signs or report their contacts. Now, they’re coming ahead to be examined and are extra amenable to coming into a care facility. The same strategy has helped authorities flatten the curve in Dharavi, one of many metropolis’s largest slums.

The problem, Shaikh says, is to assist folks perceive that “we have to fight COVID-19 and not COVID-19 patients.”

Neil Samson

About Neil Samson

Neil is a reporter for Market News Reports. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Neil got an internship at a morning radio show and worked as a journalist and producer. Michael has also worked as a columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Neil covers Technology and Science events for Market News Reports.

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