Staff Perspective: Can a Virus Lead to Stigma?

Staff Perspective: Can a Virus Lead to Stigma?

Stigma is defined as a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. Stigma can often lead to discrimination against an identifiable group of people, a place, or a nation. Public health emergencies, such as pandemics, are stressful occurrences that can understandably lend to a great deal of uncertainty, distress, and concern. Feelings of fear and anxiety related to the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) can inadvertently lead to social stigma due to lack of knowledge or misinformation about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, and fears related to the disease and death.

While there is no single group, ethnicity, or population in the US that is more likely to get or spread COVID-19 than others, stigma and discrimination can occur when individuals associate COVID-19 with a certain population, community, or nationality (APA, 2020). Due to potential exposure, healthcare workers, emergency responders, and other frontline workers may be particularly at risk of experiencing COVID-19 related stigma. Similarly, stigma can occur towards individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, even after they have recovered or been released from isolation/quarantine. This can occur even if the individual is not deemed to be at risk for spreading the virus to others (Center for Disease Control, 2020).

Some of the early information about COVID-19 may have inadvertently contributed to prejudice and discrimination against certain communities. Stigma can lead to significant harm by generating fear or anger toward people instead of focusing on the disease that is causing the problem. Stigmatized individuals may experience even greater levels of isolation, withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or public embarrassment. Stigma can also impede efforts to test and treat the disease. For example, stigma may cause individuals to hide their symptoms, refrain from seeking immediate health care, and even prevent individuals from adopting healthy behaviors (Mayo Clinic, 2020). It is critical that we take calculated steps in reducing the stigma and potential harm, especially for communities that have endured long-standing stigma and discrimination over the course of history.

UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have developed a “Guide to prevention and addressing social stigma” related to COVID-19. The guide is intended to support governments, media and local organizations. The guide outlines information on social stigma, the impact of stigma, how to address stigma, and communication tips and messages.

  • Experts also recommend the following guidelines to help reduce COVID-19 related stigma:
  • Utilize trusted sources of information to remain updated and informed on COVID-19 to avoid miscommunication or inaccurate information.
  • Disseminate accurate information and facts about COVID-19, including information about risks, lack of risks, and how the virus spreads.
  • Offer practical tips on how the public should react during the pandemic (e.g. guidance on mask wearing and hand hygiene), as well as advice on emotional coping (e.g. stress management skills and relaxation training).
  • Employ non-stigmatizing language and images in verbal and written communications.
  • Ensure privacy and confidentiality for those seeking healthcare.
  • Use media and social media channels to discuss the potential harm of stigma and speak out against stereotyping groups of people who experience stigma because of COVID-19.
  • Suggest virtual mental health resources for individuals who have experienced stigma or discrimination.

For more COVID-19 resources for professionals and the public, visit

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Sharon Birman, Psy.D. is a Military Behavioral Health Psychologist working with the Military Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.


American Psychological Association (2020). Combating bias and stigma related to COVID-19:
How to stop the xenophobia that’s spreading along with the coronavirus
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Mayo Clinic, (2020). COVID-19 (coronavirus) stigma: What it is and how to reduce it.
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National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral
Diseases. 2020. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Reducing Stigma. Center for Disease Control. Retrieved from