Covid-19: Social stigma, discrimination and deprivation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 27, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:58 AM, July 27, 2020

Covid-19: Social stigma, discrimination and deprivation

More than half of the world's population lived in Covid-19 induced lockdown until recently, which highly disrupted lives and livelihoods throughout societies. In particular women, people with disabilities, the poor, ethnic minorities and the disadvantaged section of the society, mostly in the developing world, have been adversely affected. Income inequality, deprivation, discrimination on the basis of colour, creed, ethnicity, social status, etc. have worsened the situation. The pandemic outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviour against people of certain ethnic or also social backgrounds. Anyone perceived to have been in contact with people affected by the virus has been discriminated against in certain cases. 

Covid-19 patients in many cases have been neglected by caregivers, family, friends and the community. Stigma has undermined social cohesion and prompted social isolation of patients. Bodies of people who died from Covid-19 were found to have been abandoned in forests or on the streets in certain places of Bangladesh. Communities in a few areas even refused burial of such bodies. After being identified as a corona patient, a number of aged men/women could not even enter their own houses or get any treatment anywhere. And Covid-19 patients, their family members and frontline workers like medical professionals and law enforcers have been harassed in many places.

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Economic disparity has led to deprivation, discriminatory behaviour and denial of proper treatment of economically poor corona patients in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The rich-poor gap has increased significantly in Bangladesh in recent years. The massive GDP growth has not been accompanied with increased equality. The Gini coefficient has increased from 0.388 in 1992 to 0.482 in 2016, meaning that inequality has increased. GDP growth without proper job creation has resulted in slow progress in poverty reduction. Existing inequality of access to healthcare for the poor has aggravated during the pandemic. Economic recovery packages like bailouts, incentives, loan rescheduling, subsidies, etc. are benefitting mainly the rich businesses. Our average household consumption fell from 1.8 percent in 2010 to 1.4 percent in 2016. Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus and will be more affected due to long-standing segregation, high-cost of medicine, etc. Higher mortality rate has been observed among marginal groups in the US—21 percent of black Americans and 18 percent of Hispanic people live below the poverty line, compared to 8 percent of white Americans. Low income is associated with diabetes, heart-disease, etc. which makes on more vulnerable to Covid-19. The US Gini coefficient was 0.59 in 2016 which represents high inequality. Implicit racism and discrimination through attitudes, process, behaviour, prejudice, ignorance and thoughtlessness have been reported in the UK also, 8.5 million non-whites in Britain face disparity in education, employment, medical treatment, etc. Proportion of coronavirus infection is disproportionately higher (34 percent) among the UK's ethnic minority population (14 percent).

In the absence of effective testing and contact tracing system, the pandemic now confronts the world with unsolved and urgent challenges. Lockdown, business closure, job cuts, etc. have resulted in huge disruptive impacts on individuals and society. Even countries that have suppressed the pandemic are experiencing adverse economic spill-over effects from the rest of the world. The IMF has downgraded the decline in global GDP from (-) 3 percent in April to (-) 4.9 percent in June 2020. Effective Covid-19 treatments and vaccines are still far off. Equitable and lasting solutions to the pandemic are urgently required on the basis of social justice, global cooperation, good governance and sustainable development. The core challenges to be addressed by the global community include suppressing the pandemic rapidly; meet the pressing needs of vulnerable groups (poor, elderly, minorities); prevent public health emergencies from turning into fulminant financial crises and improve healthcare systems.

Multilateral institutions like IMF, WHO, FAO, WFP, etc. which are coordinating global responses to CovidD-19 seem to be caught up in the middle of big-power geopolitics. Strengthening the efficacy of these critical institutions is essential for sustainable economic recovery. Specific dimensions of the pandemic that need to be urgently addressed include: i) strengthened public health systems for surveillance, testing, tracing and isolating Covid-19 cases; ii) prevention of zoonotic diseases; ii) development and distribution of medicines and vaccines; iv) protection of vulnerable groups; and v) efficient and equitable financing of pandemic control. The global Lancet Covid-19 Commission headed by Jeffrey D Sachs aims to control the pandemic decisively through equitable, innovative and globally cooperative strategies with firm commitment to leaving no one behind.

Discriminating against Covid-19 patients violates their fundamental human rights. The poor and vulnerable patients must be given access to proper medical treatment and care. Accurate information about the pandemic should be shared, fear and rumours must not be spread. Infected persons must not be referred to as the "victims" of coronavirus. Social media may be used to express solidarity with Covid-19 patients. Spread of social stigma can be stopped by calling out hateful online rhetoric which may be reported to the hosting platforms. Youths as active agents of change can use the digital platforms to create awareness about the pandemic and reduce social stigma against patients and front-line workers. The root causes of poverty and inequality should be addressed to encourage economic growth with equality.

Human Rights Watch recommends that 8 million unauthorised workers who will not receive governments' "direct cheques" should be financially supported by the US government. Direct payments should also include child benefits, disability benefits, social security and sickness benefits, etc. The use of enhanced budgetary allocations to the health sector in our budget this year, along with the special financial packages declared by the prime minister for the poor and jobless people, should be used transparently and with accountability. Social safety net should be widened.

Cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises in Bangladesh should be offered adequate financing through banks and MFIs to get the rural economy moving. Structural changes must be undertaken to ensure sustainable and equitable economic growth and reduce deprivation and exclusion. Universal non-contributory pension may be introduced for Bangladeshis above 70-years-old on a pilot basis. Covid-19 treatment facilities should be enhanced and some facilities should be kept reserved for the elderly and disadvantaged patients. Above all, patients of the disease must be treated with dignity and must not be stigmatised.


Md Abdul Karim is a former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Email:

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