Explained: Why WHO is warning against politicising the coronavirus pandemic

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Addressing the issue, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had in late February published a document titled “Social Stigma associated with COVID-19”, a guide for government, media and local organisations working on the disease. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Over the past few days, US President Donald Trump has referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus”, drawing criticism from various quarters. On Wednesday, Trump fended off accusations of racism, saying, “It’s not racist at all. [The virus] comes from China, that’s why.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus”, after the city in China that was the epicentre of the outbreak.

Addressing the issue, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had in late February published a document titled “Social Stigma associated with COVID-19”, a guide for government, media and local organisations working on the disease.

Coronavirus pandemic: What WHO says on social stigma

“The current COVID-19 outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus,” the guide says.

It defines social stigma in the context of health as “the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In an outbreak, this may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease.”

Explained: Why WHO is warning against politicising the coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: Disinfectants sprayed outside the Thane railway station premises by TMC firebrigade authorities on Sunday. (Express Photo: Deepak Joshi)

Coronavirus: What social stigma can do

While confusion, anxiety, and fear among the public are understandable, these factors also lead to the fueling of harmful stereotypes, the guide says.

Social stigma can drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination, prevent them from seeking health care immediately, and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours, the document explains.

Ways of addressing social stigma

“Evidence clearly shows that stigma and fear around communicable diseases hamper the response. What works is building trust in reliable health services and advice, showing empathy with those affected, understanding the disease itself, and adopting effective, practical measures so people can help keep themselves and their loved ones safe,” the guide says.

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The WHO recommends against:

–attaching a location or ethnicity to the disease, e.g. calling it the “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus”. It explains the name COVID-19 as coming from “co” for Corona, “vi” for virus and “d” for disease, and 19 because the disease emerged in 2019.

–referring to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims”; they should be addressed as “people who have COVID-19” or “people who are being treated for COVID-19”

–talking about “COVID-19 suspects” or “suspected cases”; the correct usage being “people who may have COVID-19” or “people who are presumptive for COVID-19”

–using the words “infecting others” or “spreading the virus”; “acquiring/contracting the virus” should be used

One of the guide’s recommendations includes governments engaging social influencers, such as religious leaders. “An example would be a mayor (or another key influencer) going live on social media and shaking hands with the leader of the Chinese community,” it says.

Explained: Why WHO is warning against politicising the coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus pandemic: At a hospital in Italy. (AP Photo)

The guide warns against an “infodemic” of misinformation and rumours, which it says is “spreading more quickly than the current outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19).”

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It asks the media to promote content around basic infection prevention practices, symptoms of COVID-19 and when to seek health care, instead of emphasising efforts to find a vaccine and treatment, which can increase fear and give the impression of powerlessness.

“Governments, citizens, media, key influencers and communities have an important role to play in preventing and stopping stigma surrounding people from China and Asia in general. We all need to be intentional and thoughtful when communicating on social media and other communication platforms, showing supportive behaviors around the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19),” says the guide.

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