Healthcare Workers and Emergency Responders Face Social Stigma with COVID-19

social stigma covid 19

As the COVID-19 public health emergency continues, the issue of social stigma is becoming more prevalent among health care workers and emergency first responders.

The CDC even says that emergency responders or healthcare professionals are part of some of the groups that might experience social stigma, shame and in some cases, physical violence.

Jim Kendall, LCSW, CEAP
Jim Kendall, LCSW, CEAP

Jim Kendall, LCSW, CEAP, Manager of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Work/Life Connections Center, reminds everyone to be kind in this time of stress and that no one is invincible.

When only part of a population is perceived as being affected, in this case healthcare care workers or emergency responders, others may incorrectly believe they are not at risk. By assuming they are safe, majority population groups may not take important public health precautions, unintentionally compromising their own health and well-being.

“It makes sense that physically we want to separate ourselves from those who have COVID-19 but unconsciously we also want to psychologically do the same,” Kendall said. “We treat patients, we don’t expect to be one. We all are susceptible to the same fate.”

Kendall said the issue of social stigma associated with public health emergencies isn’t new.

“In 1990, Philip Strong, a medical sociologist, outlined a psycho- social model (Epidemic Psychology: A Model) that noted that waves of fear, panic, stigma, moralizing and calls to action that characterizes behaviors around pandemics,” he explained.

“During the 1980s, AIDS was an illness that scared the public and healthcare profession.  Before the disease was fully understood, those who contracted AIDS were viewed as outcasts and stigmatized in the way that those who had Hansen’s Disease (leprosy).”

Kendall said those on the frontline of this emergency should be thanked and appreciated and not stigmatized.

“We need to thank our healthcare workers and emergency responders,” he said. “They are performing a valuable service to everyone by helping make sure this disease does not spread further.”

Kendall offers these tips:

  • Remember, diseases can make anyone sick. Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 can cause people to avoid or reject others. Don’t let fear and anxiety take control of your life.
  • Do the things that the CDC is reminding you to do to stay healthy, including washing your hands and not touching your face.
  • Someone who has completed quarantine or has been released from isolation does not pose a risk of infection to other people.
  • Stigma affects the emotional or mental health of those stigmatized. Check in on those that you care about that have been stigmatized.
  • Maintain privacy and confidentiality of those seeking healthcare and those who may be part of any contact investigation