SEATTLE, Washington — As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Africa, the stigma surrounding the virus threatens the safety of citizens. However, hope comes in the work done by healthcare workers on the frontlines and in the memory of well-known public figures such as Zindzi Mandela. These people are in some way contributing to the efforts to destigmatize COVID-19 in Africa.
Stigma and Misinformation
Within many African countries, stigma and misinformation regarding the coronavirus are all too common. Citizens often either fall victim to the belief that the virus is a hoax created by the government, express great fear of others who are suspected of having the virus or avoid those who have already recovered from it.
In a survey of 3,000 Somalian citizens, more than 40% of the respondents believed the government created the coronavirus as a campaign. The same survey showed only around one-quarter of respondents considered themselves well informed on the virus.
In Zambia, they found a similar trend of misinformation. A survey of 400 participants revealed 43% of respondents did not have an accurate understanding of the virus. This is further proven in other responses such as how 69% surveyed believe that dental hygiene can help preventative the virus while 43% believe alcohol can.
However, the statistic that creates the most stigma contributing to fear between citizens is that which indicates misinformation about recovering from COVID-19. In a continent-wide assessment, only 44.2% of respondents believed it to be safe to interact with individuals who have recovered from the virus. This means more than half of African citizens believe a person continues to carry and spread the virus after recovery.
Results of Misinformation
This lack of correct health education has created hostility and isolation amongst African communities. Individuals suspected of either having the virus or having recovered from it have been forced from their homes. Communities have even exiled some healthcare workers, such as nurses, because of the fear of contraction.
In some cases, citizens are even removing their masks because of social pressures. Either they feel humiliated by others who think they are mindlessly following a government scheme or others assume they have the virus because of the mask-wearing. This poses a great public health threat since masks greatly reduce the number of cases and transmission.
Fighting the Stigma of COVID-19
Although the level of stigma surrounding the virus is a primary health concern, there are also many people working to destigmatize COVID-19 in Africa. Some organizations and individuals working to bring about this change are:
- Save the Children: Save the Children is working alongside community leaders to spread accurate information among African communities. They are also involved with the support of testing and managing COVID-19 cases. They work to influence governments to contribute to the destigmatization of the virus.
- Elders, churches and community members: Those who have recovered from the coronavirus are also working to dispel myths. They serve as living examples that it is indeed possible to have a life after COVID-19.
- The World Health Organization: The World Health Organization is currently implementing positive health education. One stress counselor, Dr. David Igbokwe, works with the organization and is encouraging the use of inclusive and positive language to destigmatize COVID-19 in Africa.
- The Mandela family: Zindzi Mandela, a devoted South African activist and daughter of Nelson Mandela, recently passed away. Her cause of death currently remains undisclosed, but her family has revealed that she had the coronavirus. The decision to release such information about a deeply respected public figure has allowed open dialogue and discussions regarding the destigmatization of COVID-19 in Africa.
Through the efforts of hardworking individuals and dedicated organizations, the destigmatization of COVID-19 in Africa seems more and more like a tangible and attainable reality.
– Aradia Webb