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COVID-19: Share correct information to avoid stigma and discrimination

The government and other responsible stakeholders have been called to timeously share accurate and correct information on the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) to guard against stigma and discrimination.

Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) made the call this week.

CWGH is a network of national membership based civil society and community based organisations who aim to collectively enhance community participation in health in Zimbabwe.

COVID-19, first detected in December last year, has since spread all over the globe, claiming over 18 000 lives including one in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has so far five confirmed cases of the deadly pandemic, which claimed the life of media personality Zororo Makamba in Harare Monday.

CWGH executive director Itai Rusike said public health emergencies like the outbreak of COVID-19 required delicate handling to avoid stigmatisation and discrimination of those suspected to be sick from the disease or having been in contact with suspects.

“This therefore calls for the government and other stakeholders to share accurate, correct and timely information about the disease to avoid the state of affairs where the public rely on inflammatory and false information from social media, causing unnecessary fear, panic, stigma and discrimination in the country,” said Rusike.  

He said Zimbabwe could not afford a repeat of the HIV/AIDS debacle in the late 1990s, which was characterised by stigma and discrimination fuelled by lack of information that left people living with HIV more vulnerable.

“The current state of affairs requires constant updates and reassurance from health authorities to avoid panic and despondency among citizens,” explained Rusike.

“Already, fake news and misinformation on social media is causing panic, fear and stigmatization of people suspected to have the disease, hence the need for correct and unmassaged data from official sources. It is the government’s national duty to allay such fears.” 

CWGH executive director Itai Rusike.

CWGH executive director said lack of information or misinformation, fear and anxiety about COVID-19 could result in social stigma towards people, a certain community of people or nationalities; or even persons released from quarantine.

“This therefore calls for the government and other stakeholders to craft and communicate well-though out, non-stigmatising and non-discriminatory messages to the citizens,” he said.

“The effects of stigmatisation are devastating socially, emotionally, physically and economically and may result in further health complications. CWGH is very concerned to learn that people of some nationalities have been subjected to rejection and at times physical violence because they are associated with either the source of the disease or because their countries were badly affected by COVID-19.”  

Rusike said health workers such as nurses and doctors, who come into contact with suspects are also exposed to stigma and discrimination in communities they stay because of their vulnerability and exposure to COVID-19 suspects and patients.

“CWGH therefore calls upon responsible authorities including Ministry of Health and Child Care, public health officials and all those who communicate about COVID-19 to raise awareness about the disease without increasing panic and fear; share accurate information about how the virus is spread; and maintain confidentiality of those health seeking assistance and those who are part of contact investigation to stop stigma and discrimination,” emphasized Rusike.

He added: “As CWGH, we call upon the government to speak out openly against negative statements by influential officials; harmful statements on social media or exclusion of people who pose no risk from regular activities. It should monitor images and posters on COVID-19 to ensure that they do not reinforce stereotype.” 

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