Challenging Stigma with Compassion During COVID-19

Often in major disease outbreaks, marginalized groups face stigmatization and blame. Though stigma is incredibly harmful to health and well-being, and has been a recurring problem throughout human history, our public health messaging remains the same: “share facts to end stigma.” The rationale is that facts about how a virus is transmitted, for example, can dispel misinformation linking certain groups to the origin or spread of disease. While this approach to reducing stigma is logical, it does nothing to combat the underlying causes.

Stigma, and the division of humans into ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, is part of our evolutionary history. But why do we resolve to stigmatize and dehumanize others during crisis, in particular? There are certainly many academic theories and explanations, but we believe the root of the problem is ignorance of our interconnectedness in times of uncertainty and fear. In our view, each of us is an integral part of the same whole – humankind. When we fail to see how much we are linked to those around us we open the door to ‘othering’ and mistreatment of those we perceive as different from ourselves. Amid COVID-19, this disconnection has allowed harmful language like “yellow alert” and the “Chinese virus” to become part of public discourse, leading to extreme stigmatization of groups and individuals who are unfairly singled out based on their appearance and skin color. This state of disconnection is only exacerbated by the fact that we are all now physically separated under quarantine and shelter in place orders. It is now, more than ever, that we must recognize that we are really all in this together.

Stigma is doubly dangerous in that it not only adversely affects marginalized groups and individuals, but also works to further unravel our web of interconnections and alienate us from one another. On the one hand, the testimonies of those who have experienced this stigma first-hand make us feel helpless. On the other, we believe there is one thing that can really address the root cause of stigma and reinforce our interconnectedness: Compassion!

Compassion is not only recognizing the suffering of another but actively attempting to relieve it. At its heart, compassion is an understanding that we all share in the same humanity – we are one humankind. There are so many examples of compassion that we can draw on in the current pandemic: showing appreciation to public health response teams, researchers, and health care personnel working tirelessly to fight Covid-19, calling an elderly neighbor to alleviate feelings of loneliness, delivering groceries to those who cannot leave the house, donating blood, supporting local food banks and providing supplies like hand sanitizer to delivery workers. These are all tangible examples of compassion happening around us. All of these acts unite us and alleviate the shared stressors of COVID-19. And the added bonus? Showing compassion to others through acts of kindness also benefits our own well-being!

Compassion is an awakening to the fact that we need each other to foster solidarity and overcome disunity, disconnection, dis-ease. No one can escape the natural pulses of aging, sickness and death – these things define us as living beings. On some level, we are all afraid. We are all uneasy. We are all uncertain. So what do we stand to gain by blaming, shaming and casting out certain members of our society when they need us most? Challenging stigma with compassion not only alleviates our shared suffering, it strengthens our bond and empowers us to overcome this pandemic – together.

Sedem Adiabu and Ashley L. Graham


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