When Even Words Matter: Covid-19.


The spread of a new disease is often associated with discrimination against people from (or appearing to come from) the countries where the first cases occurred. The social stigma, the fact of associating a disease with a country or ethnicity, as well as being senseless is counterproductive.

Words are important. This is once again confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) which, in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and UNESCO, has drawn up a real guide aimed at government institutions, to the media and organizations that deal with issues related to the Covid-19 on a daily basis to prevent and address social stigma.

MARCH 2ND“Coronavirus, when the fear of contagion only serves to mask racism”, “Rome ‘forbidden’ to ‘the Chinese’” and again: “The Chinese are increasingly marginalized because of the coronavirus”, “Coronavirus, ‘attacked because they are Chinese’”

These are just some titles, perhaps a little excessive, but indicative of a real and well-presented risk: that of the social stigma, which occurs when people negatively associate an infectious disease, such as Covid-19, with a specific population. Ironically, we could say that now the Chinese should protect themselves from the Italians (the number of cases in China continue to decrease, while increasing in Italy). Returning to seriousness, we add that all forms of discrimination are the daughter of ignorance and generate monsters. The WHO recalls this in a report from February 24th  in which it is noted that “since the emergence of Covid-19 we have seen cases of public stigmatization among specific populations and the increase of harmful stereotypes”. In particular, “there is a growing number of reports of public stigmatization against people from areas affected by the epidemic”. 

It does not surprise us. Our history abounds with examples of discrimination associated with pathologies. During the SARS epidemic in 2003, according to an analysis conducted in the United States, a strong suspicion and fear developed towards people of Asian origin, regardless of the presence of real risk factors for being affected by the disease. The catalysts of fear during the most recent H1N1 flu pandemic were individuals from (or appeared to come from) Mexico, where the first cases were reported. Aided by media coverage which, although useful as a means of information, has incited fear and created a climate ripe for stigma. And then the 1973 cholera epidemic in Naples, yellow fever in Latin America in 1850… the examples, in fact, are numerous.

Today, according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, anti-Chinese discrimination is not predominant, but it is nonetheless an attitude fueled by the media and exploited by politics. 

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, some Western media have used the disease to discredit China,” reads an article from February 26th. The German magazine Der Spiegel on February 1st published an article on the front page titled: “Coronavirus made in China”, while the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, a comic in which the stars of the Chinese national flag were replaced with images of coronavirus cells. The Wall Street Journal instead published a comment entitled: “China is the real sick man of Asia”. It is a very risky attitude, according to the WHO, which explicitly asked not to link the COVID-19 infection to a country or ethnic group.

“These media seem to use the epidemic as a pretext for political attack and in turn incite racial discrimination against the Chinese,” concludes the Global Times. Creating this climate, the WHO warns, could even contribute to aggravating the spread of the virus. The fear of being socially marginalized and stigmatized, in fact, could lead people to deny the first clinical symptoms and not seek prompt medical attention. 

According to the WHO, the cure for discrimination should be an objective and scientific dissemination of the facts and correct information on what we know about the virus. The fears are partly justified by the report: “Given that COVID-19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread will cause confusion, anxiety and fear among the general public.”

If we think about it for a moment, however, we realize that the disease is associated with the foreigner, and used to marginalize him/her, even in the absence of potential, mysterious, pandemics. 

Migration, which now involves almost 80 million people, forced to leave their country of origin all over the world, is enough to destabilize political and social systems and to give rise to unfounded fears, such as that migrants and refugees are carriers of infectious diseases. Although many are convinced of the contrary, the risk that refugees and migrants can transmit infectious diseases to the populations that welcome them is very low. When they arrive, they are on average in good health, and they risk getting sick in the countries of destination due to poor living conditions and changes in their lifestyle. 

The social stigma, unfounded discrimination, against which the WHO warns, is therefore a much more insidious, deeper and rooted disease, which goes far beyond the current epidemic. 

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