Chronic stress and uncertainty associated with coronavirus also lead to a number of situations that, in addition to the disease, can have consequences not only for our relationships, but also for the development of children and their peer relationships. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and a number of experts have been warning of a phenomenon that is by no means new in the face of the unknown. It is a stigma. Unfortunately, the occurrence of stigma due to health status is witnessed in other diseases, often associated with, for example, society’s lack of understanding of mental health problems, diseases that affect specific groups of people, individual countries, etc. Time of health crisis, such as pandemic, is stressful, and fear and anxiety can lead to stigma.


We call discrimination against a group of people, places, nations, countries a stigma. In the circumstances when it occurs in connection with the disease, it is associated with ignorance of how the disease spreads, the need to blame someone, but also with fears, rumors and myths that are not true, and which we are surrounded by every day. In a situation where there is a danger of the disease and when we are warned that contact with an infected person is a potential danger – there is a high probability of stigmatization of coronavirus patients.


Individuals facing coronavirus often experience environmental condemnation – stigma


In the media and in everyday contacts, we can hear that individuals who face the coronavirus, in addition to physical signs of the disease, often experience condemnation of the environment – stigma. Patients are sometimes attributed responsibility for the disease, negative traits that make them feel different, marked. And if we believe that a person is responsible for the disease, that person will be more stigmatized.


Let’s remember everything that has been present in our environment in recent months: the fear of the arrival of people from another continent or other cities or parts of our country… Let’s remember what people who were assigned quarantine or self-isolation said, how experts working with patients felt (medical staff, various services that have been directly exposed to illness to help others), people from service industries, people who are at risk of getting sick due to their characteristics, people living in difficult conditions, etc. Most emphasize the support they receive from close people and which is important to them, but we occasionally hear the other side as well – how the environment is sometimes incomprehensible to them.


In addition, let’s remember all the groups that were directly or indirectly criticized for their behavior: the elderly, young people, children… So to be even more precise: cafe employees, wedding guests, Dalmatians, Slavonians, citizens of Zagreb, tourists, athletes … It’s a lot different groups who at some point may have felt stigma and isolation from the environment because they were associated with the spread of disease, regardless of the individual responsibility of each person in different situations. This was also contributed by stereotypes heard from the “most responsible” places, which certainly do not help, then some media articles, photos from social networks that point the finger directly at a certain group of people. Probably each of us can fit into at least two of these groups.


It has been shown that other members of the same group who are stigmatized at some point, despite not being ill and regardless of their responsible behavior, can also experience stigma if members of their community / group are characterized as irresponsible. These days, for example, we often encounter the anger of young people who protest that, as they say, they “put them in a group that does not care about others.”


Stereotypes and prejudices about the appearance of the virus appear all over the world and unfortunately this phenomenon is not new in history. However, the virus does not choose and can affect anyone. If a person is stigmatized with the disease, the consequences are worse, because stigmatized people therefore remain isolated when they need the most support.


Why we observe a high level of stigma associated with the COVID-19 epidemic


All experts agree that the reasons why we observe a high level of stigma associated with the COVID-19 epidemic are based on three main factors. First, it is a new virus and still unknown; second, we are more often afraid of the unknown; and third, fear is easily associated with “others.” So, it is understandable that in the current situation related to the virus we feel confusion, anxiety, fear… Unfortunately, apart from taking care of ourselves and trying to behave responsibly towards ourselves and others, these factors act on negative stereotypes.


In such situations, stigma disrupts social cohesion and encourages isolation that can lead to faster virus spread and greater difficulty in controlling disease. Stigmatization has been shown to encourage people to hide the disease to avoid stigmatization, they often do not seek help in time, and stigmatization discourages them from embracing healthy and responsible behaviors. This is not helped by the occasional unethical behavior of the media or those responsible if they “point the finger” at individuals, groups, people of certain professions as “culprits” for the self-isolation of an organization or community. In addition, the current economic uncertainty and fear of losing a job due to the need for self-isolation may further prevent people from talking about their symptoms.


Related to all of the above, stigma needs to be responded to, as stigma and fear reduce the appropriate and empathetic response of others to the disease. The response that helps is to build trust in the health care system, show empathy for all those infected, better understand the disease, and accept all effective measures in their behavior.


Think about it, did you explain to the children that the spread of the virus is not related to human characteristics?


Of course, everything we say and do is listened to and watched by children. Prejudices, as in all other situations in which the child develops condemnation of others and others, and even the stigma associated with health, children learn in their natural environment – family relationships. No matter how he sees the world in which he lives, if he finds himself in conflict between what he experiences and the attitude of his parents, he tends to accept the views of his parents. We know that children watch adults cope with new and stressful situations. This includes looking at people. That’s why it’s important to help children recognize the stigmatizing language in their environment and encourage them to stop it. Think about it, did you explain to the children that the spread of the virus is not related to human characteristics?


Adults can help children understand the importance of looking at others with dignity and empathy, without connecting whole groups of people to events happening in different parts of the country or the world. COVID-19 does not differentiate between races, nationality, homeland… It is important that adults model children’s acceptance and compassion with their behavior and speech, because children receive emotional messages from important adults – parents, educators and teachers.


Regarding the spread of the virus, children need clear, truthful and useful information, not isolation and negative attitudes towards others. Pay attention to what information your child is following, especially if you live with adolescents or if you see negative information appearing in some media that may be related to people’s characteristics.


Avoid stereotypes of people from different parts or other countries. Children easily generalize such statements and apply them to others, especially children from their environment. If we emphasize only belonging to a group for people who are ill, we can create in children anger, prejudice, mistrust for all people in the same group, fear of others, and then negative behavior towards them. It is important to stop such behavior. Talk to children about their anger, insecurity, and confusion about the disease that is being talked about and that affects many, and offer alternative ways to express themselves. Talk about how it would be for him or her to associate with the disease in this way. Talk to older children about how they would feel if negative and inaccurate attitudes were formed about them based on their appearance, dress, friends they hang out with, their parents ’origins or occupations?


Stress and exposure to prejudice and rejection increase anxiety in both children and adults


It is important for children to emphasize positive and close images of different groups, emphasize differences between people as positive and always present in the neighborhood, community, among adults who care for them (teachers, doctors…). Discuss the differences among all people who help others, for the benefit of all. Help your child accept differences as part of everyday life.


In addition to encouraging children to behave responsibly, help them discover how they can help others. Helping others is part of recovery and contributes significantly to children’s resilience to new stresses, both now and later in life.


Remember that both you and your child may be part of a population to which some “others” express prejudice. And your child may feel stigmatized by others in a situation related to this disease. Stress and exposure to prejudice and rejection increase anxiety in both children and adults – increasing anxiety, depression, fear, anger and encouraging feelings of isolation. Children may be upset by what they hear in the news, feel fear that they or those close to them will be isolated from others because of the disease, but also because of their characteristics, lifestyle, age, nationality, regional affiliation. Pay attention to the child, whether he changes his behavior, whether he refuses contacts, whether he withdraws. Talk to the child, take him seriously, make sure the child feels safe.


While everything we say is important to your children, for the end, or perhaps for the beginning, talk to yourself and loved ones first. Stigmatization, stereotypes and prejudices are common human behavior in such situations and that is why it is important to first look at ourselves, to see if we are trapped in some old prejudice, to stigmatize others. Recognize your own fears and concerns as well as possible reactions that we probably wouldn’t be proud of if we were more aware of them.


Words matter (UNICEF, 2020):


– Inform the child about the virus, do not associate this phenomenon exclusively with certain locations, ethnic or national affiliation.


– You are talking about people who have gotten or are recovering from the virus, not about people with the virus.


– You are talking about people who got the virus, not about those who spread or transmit it (the child hears this as someone’s intention). Using vocabulary that implies intent in a child creates the feeling that “someone is doing something bad to others,” this increases stigma toward sufferers, reduces empathy, and can lead to a refusal to seek help if he or she feels symptoms of illness.


– Speak openly about the risk of the virus based on scientific facts and official information, do not retell unconfirmed rumors and do not use excessive descriptions (“apocalypse, end of the world, plague”) that further cause fear, especially in children.


– Emphasize positively the importance of the effectiveness of prevention and the measures taken, and that most people will overcome this situation. There are simple steps we take to protect ourselves, our loved ones and those more vulnerable than us. Do not threaten the child, beware together with the child.


Writes: Bruna Profaca, PhD, clinical psychologist


Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy. 

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