Researchers will identify examples of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination during the first 12 months of the pandemic in the UK, particularly those found online.

New study will show how efforts to tackle coronavirus can inadvertently cause shame and stigma

Experts have begun a major new study to understand how public health efforts to tackle coronavirus can inadvertently cause shame and discrimination.

Interventions such as having to isolate, regional lockdowns and the use of facemasks have been a feature of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a danger the stigma sometimes associated with these interventions can make them less effective, and worsen health inequalities.

Organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the NHS, Public Health England and the Centre for Disease Control have said the shame and stigma related to COVID-19 is an issue which needs to be urgently addressed.

People who ignore public health warnings have been labelled online as ‘COVIDIOTS’ while those subject to more serious regional lockdowns have said they have felt singled out.

Researchers will identify examples of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination during the first 12 months of the pandemic in the UK, particularly those found online. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Covid rapid response call.

This will be the first study to investigate and contextualise the connections between shame and efforts by government and health workers to tackle COVID-19. Researchers hope the findings will help to ensure clearer and more effective public health messaging, and show the impact and consequences of this work so far.

Experts will develop accessible practical resources on shame-sensitive policymaking for local, national and global public health bodies, both in short, rapid briefings and longer, more detailed reports.

The research team will investigate how digital technology, social media and rapid global information exchange have created different types of shame and stigma compared to previous respiratory pandemics.

Shame is felt by many struggling with hardships caused by the pandemic, including poverty, job loss, illness, alcoholism, isolation, and domestic abuse. Healthcare workers have expressed shame caused by losing patients, unknowingly spreading the virus, and being unwilling to return to work to ‘fight on the frontline’ after having left the profession.

The study is a collaboration between Dr Luna Dolezal, Dr Fred Cooper and Dr Arthur Rose from the University of Exeter.

They will identify and investigate the sites, contexts and circumstances of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination during January to December 2020. They will explore media stories published in this time alongside personal experiences of shame and stigma in the present crisis, taken from testimonial responses to directives on COVID-19 conducted by the social research organisation Mass Observation throughout 2020.

The team will also investigate the role of shame and stigma in past respiratory pandemics, including the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, 1968 H3N2 pandemic and the 1957-1958 H2N2 virus.

Dr Dolezal said: “During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen how instances of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination are related to, and often arise from, public health interventions. There is an urgent need to investigate, understand and address stigma and shame related to coronavirus.”

“By learning the lessons from what happened in 2020 we can guide and inform unfolding public health policymaking, and hopefully stop any detrimental effects of inadvertent shaming and stigmatisation in the future. As we enter a new phase of ‘living with the virus’, emerging public health interventions need to be continuously assessed for their potential to produce shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination.”

Date: 22 January 2021

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