A model of the novel coronavirus. Stigma associated with COVID-19 infection has affected how people manage their health and communicate with others. (Gaylord News)

When University of Oklahoma student Leslie Miller’s niece realized in the spring she probably had COVID-19, before it was clear how widespread the pandemic would be, she tried not to talk about it.

Though there were still many unknowns about the virus, her niece didn’t want to be stereotyped as someone who acts irresponsibly, said Miller, who is working toward a Ph.D. in sociology with an emphasis on the sociology of medicine and health care.

“It’s just the unknown. The fear of the unknown, I think it comes down to,” Miller said.

This is also seen in diseases such as lung cancer, where people end up being blamed for being sick, Miller said.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

“Some people get lung cancer and they’ve never smoked. It’s not their fault,” Miller said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued throughout the year, a social stigma has developed around the virus. This stigma can affect the way people manage their own health and the way they communicate with others.

‘No one needs to know’

According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak “has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviors against people of certain ethnic backgrounds as well as anyone perceived to have been in contact with the virus.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people in certain racial and ethnic minority groups can have an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID because of “longstanding systemic health and social inequities.” 

This increased risk can feed stigma as some people associate their own prejudices with the coronavirus, said Michael Givel, an OU professor who researches public policy theory.

“Unfortunately, not only is the coronavirus a very serious and ugly thing, but then people top it off with their prejudices and discrimination,” Givel said.

Miller said another reason for the stigma is a lack of understanding of the disease.

Political climate and language can also fuel stigma, according to the WHO. Names such as “Wuhan Virus” or “Chinese Virus” can perpetuate stereotypes and cause ethnic groups such as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, among others, to experience stigma. This can “drive people away from getting screened, tested and quarantined,” the WHO states.

Political polarization regarding mask-wearing can contribute to discrimination, Miller said.

“(People) are afraid to be like, ‘Oh … I’m going to be labeled as a snowflake,” Miller said. “These stereotypes, these words that people use, increase polarization.”

Miller said diseases have always been stigmatized by society because of the way in which they mark people, whether visibly or invisibly, and separate them from the community.

“Being stereotyped or labeled as being irresponsible and selfish” can contribute to people not wanting to be tested  or tell others when they tested positive, Miller said.

OU sophomore Courtney Witte tried to avoid that label when she tested positive. She alerted the people she had been in contact so they could get tested, but she tried not to broadcast her situation.

“I think the reason my experience was positive is (I) didn’t tell a lot of people,” Witte said. “I was like, ‘No one needs to know, it’s not a big deal for me.’”

Stigma affects the way first responders act

The Emergency Medical Services Authority, which serves Oklahoma City and Tulsa, has worked to ensure such stigma does not affect its first responders.

“It’s really important that our team members trust us to be transparent and honest,” said Adam Paluka, chief public affairs officer for EMSA in Tulsa.

“If they, number one, start to feel symptoms, or if they’ve been exposed to somebody who is symptomatic or who has tested positive, we’ve made it abundantly clear to them that they will not be punished if they are positive,” Paluka said.

The WHO describes this type of communication as important for fighting stigma. Word choices such as “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” can imply intentional transmission and assign blame.

OU pre-nursing sophomore Callie Nester noticed that reaction when she tested positive while living in a sorority house.

“(People’s reaction) was pretty much supportive, although there are people that are like, ‘Oh she got it, so she must have done something or gone out somewhere to get it,’” Nester said.

“But really at the time I was just going to the store with my mask on. I hadn’t done anything to really know where I had gotten it.”

EMSA has tried to follow the WHO’s advice on effective communication to continue to provide effective care to Oklahomans, Paluka said.

“We don’t want to (spend our time) pointing fingers, we want to spend our time lending a hand,” Paluka said. “That’s what we try to do day in and day out.”

Nestor said it is important for people to report testing positive because it helps others to track the coronavirus.

“I think there’s no shame in letting people know that you have (the coronavirus),” Nester said. “I think it’s important to report those (cases) and let people know that it’s real and it’s happening and there’s no need to hide it.”