Stigma has existed for millennia, and its origins can be traced back to the Greeks who used to prick or burn the marks of identification (or tattoos) on the bodies of their slaves, criminals or traitors, to identify them as tainted or immoral people and to differentiate them from the rest of the society. The word “stigma” itself has been used in Biblical vocabulary to signify Christ’s wounds, however, the word found its way into the English language in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The contemporary theory of stigma is mostly associated with Erving Goffman, which explicates stigma as an attribute that can result in general social disapproval, a discrediting social difference that yields a “spoiled social identity”. Moreover, the research on stigma has increased exponentially since the turn of the century, and most writers explain stigma as “mark of disgrace”, an attribute that is deeply discrediting and discerning, to an extent that, borrowing Goffman’s words, it could reduce a person from a whole and usual person to a tainted, and discounted one.
Social stigma is also associated with several (generally communicable) diseases, and a person contracting such disease is generally treated as a social outcast. Unfortunately, not only the society itself is responsible for stigmatizing, one can rather find the States’ collusion in the process, HIV/AIDS being one such example. America placed a travel ban on all those who were HIV/AIDS positive in 1987, declaring it a communicable disease of public health significance. The ban was further strengthened in 1993 by Congress. The spread of HIV/AIDS could not be prevented in the USA; however, it was as late as 2009 when President Obama abrogated the law, referring to it as “rooted in fear rather than fact”.
In the context of health, social stigma is a negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. During an outbreak, this would lead to people being labelled or stigmatized, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated differently, and may experience loss of job and status, only because of a perceptional linkage with the disease. Consequently, such stigmatization can occur in case of an outbreak because of many unknowns associated with the disease. These unknowns cause fear and psychologically, it is easy to associate fears to “other” or slap the onus of responsibility for the outbreak on “others”.
Besides many social evils resurfacing with a high frequency during the current COVID-19 pandemic, stigmatizing has added fuel to the fire at micro-levels of social interaction. This sharp rise in socially proximate and more domestic crimes is also an alarm for our lifestyles in the 21st Century. Social connections and communication might have increased exponentially, however, social behaviour across the globe has certainly changed for the worse. Coronavirus may not respect the cultural, social, racial, or economic boundaries, and is affecting everyone from the British Prime Minister to the hospital nurses and from a cleric to a local farmer. Coronavirus has a novel and strange mix of feelings summed up by Paltrow “paranoid? Prudent? Panicked? Placid? Pandemic? Propaganda?” All of it as a global reminder to introspect our lives, especially about others.
Moderating between the collectivist and the individualist societies, multiple scholars have postulated the social and mostly economic advantages of each. The collectivist societies such as those existing in South Asia, are psychologically and socially attuned to respond differently to an event or crisis, as compared to the Individualist societies, in the west. In the Western research tradition, a specific form of “wellbeing” and “better quality of life” is associated with the individualist lifestyle. However, people across different cultures pursue different types of quality of life and wellbeing. At the core, the life satisfaction in collectivism originates from the Confucian traditions and is linked to the societal wellbeing, something which is generally missing in the individualist approach. Ironically, the stigma associated with the individuals in a particular social segment in the collectivist societies tends to stigmatize the entire segment. For example, a person contracting a stigmatized disease could end up getting the entire clan, tribe or family stigmatized as “outcast”. This is true in the case of COVID-19 as well, and in many cases, this could be one reason for a number of unreported or underreported cases. Consequently, an urgent need for abstinence in stigmatization.
The stigmatizing phenomenon has been noticed around the globe, with no less than POTUS stigmatizing China for spreading the virus. Last month the G-7 meeting failed to issue a joint statement because the USA refused to sign anything that does not label the virus as “Wuhan Virus”. Although Trump clarified the reason for calling Coronavirus a “Chinese Virus”, but in his ignorance and hubris forgot the trickle-down social effect of his stigma, culminating in spitting, yelling and attacks against the Chinese community in the USA. Probably a reason for the political elite to be extra careful in their statements. An attack on the Chinese Embassy in Sydney, stigmatizing them for communism, has been another reprehensible contribution by an Australian towards rising xenophobia, racism, and stigmatization.
Similar sentiments erupted in UK and Europe, for example, a French newspaper Le Courier Picard published headlines “Alterte jaune” (yellow alert) and “Le Peril Jaune?” (Yellow peril), necessitating a response Je Ne Suis Pas Un Virus (I am not a virus) by the Asian French community. Keeping conspiracy theories out of the discussion, even in the Middle East the virus was associated with a particular sect of Islam and those returning from the holy sites were stigmatized for spreading the virus in countries such as Jordan. Notwithstanding the political and leadership mismanagement of the pilgrims, similar sentiment prevailed in Pakistan.
Indian polity and Indian Media have gone a step ahead. The entire blame for spreading COVID-19 in India has been apportioned on the Muslims. The ongoing Islamophobic wave and marginalization of the Muslims got fueled by this latest round of stigmatizing. Claims are being made by the Indian media that a new form of “Corona Jihad” has been unleashed by the Muslims on the Hindus. Members of the Muslim Tableeghi Jamat, have been the frontline recipients of this stigma and Islamophobia has been transposed into Corona Jihad.
The Indian scientifically (un)proven religious transcendentalism has been the hallmark of Hindutva ideology. Ever since BJP took over New Delhi, multiple (unfounded) claims have been made in public by the Indian political elite, not to mention by PM Modi himself. Some of these claims include the birth of Karna outside a mother’s womb and therefore, the presence of genetic science and stem cell research in ancient India; the presence of plastic surgery in Hindustan thousands of years ago, and its empirical embodiment in Lord Ganesh with an elephant’s head on the human body; first-ever flight by Hindu god Rama; not to mention claims of presence of the internet, space technology, nuclear weapons and medical efficacy and virtue bathing in cow dung, millennia before the West itself even existed! Would it be preposterous to expect Modi and his “Hindutva transcendentalist jihadis” (no pun intended) to come up with a scientific abstraction against COVID-19?
Author: Waseem Iftikhar Janjua is a PhD Scholar at the Center for International Peace and Stability (CIPS), National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad.