Wikipedia describes social stigma as “the disapproval of, or discrimination against, a person based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of society.” In general terms, it can be described as blaming a certain group of people for when something goes wrong. 

For example, Northeastern Indians, who are subjected to racism in mainland India, had to face cruelty at the hands of neighbours and random people on the street during the onset of the spread of coronavirus. Even in a first-world country like America, those with Asian features were harassed and incidents of physical violence were reported; forget about being subjected to taunts of “corona”, one would be lucky to just face verbal abuse during a grocery run. 

Until last month, many like me would say to their families, in social debates among neighbours and others, “Ah all the positive cases are from quarantine facilities, there isn’t any case in the community. The Government won’t let a community outbreak take place.” 

Well, guess what? Due to the carelessness of those who believed just a face mask would be enough to protect against the virus, stepping out of the house multiple times a day we have reached the community transmission stage. It is no more a question of “could it happen to me and my family?” but “when will this happen to me and my family?”

Still, we are only human. We can’t help but be weird in handling change. What initially started as a joke among friends, could become true. When the virus first was detected in the country, each time you coughed or sneezed, your friend would look at you suspiciously or just imagine a stray cough slipping out in public – the number of dirty looks you’d be subjected to flashes across your mind, doesn’t it?

But now, imagine you’re showing symptoms of the disease for which a proper vaccine hasn’t been created, and this is the first time something as wide-scale has affected the world, left thousands dead in its wake, broken numerous countries’ economies – now imagine the firsthand experience of the virus as someone who has been infected. 

Do you think you would appreciate a camera or a phone right on your face while you’re dealing with the worst thing that could happen to you? When you already feel guilt for probably infecting other people? When you’re scared this could be the last time you will ever come out again?

When we see an ambulance coming to our locality, why do we all turn into these middle-aged people who have seemingly nothing to do but slander others? The ones who gossip about what time you come home, whom you are seen with and by the time this sentence has ended, someone’s already come to your mind, isn’t it? 

So why do we become them, gossiping about where the COVID-19 patient was seen, from an essential commodities shop to the local “masu ko dokan.” I have a particular vengeance against the irritating WhatsApp forwards from people who supposedly know everything about these patients, from the last 5 locations they were at to whether they were showing symptoms or not. 

Our actions forced a patient to release a video appealing people to not discriminate against her family and loved ones because shops refused to sell their products to the family and friends of a recent patient. Yet we pride ourselves as being so “open-minded” and “forward-thinking”. Could we stop with the hypocrisy anytime soon?

While I know and agree that this isn’t the case everywhere, like with Arjun from South Sikkim who was the 4th person to be infected by the virus and has now made a complete recovery, finished his home quarantine and still practices isolation. 

Arjun, when we spoke, was all praises for the Healthcare workers who were behind his treatment and his family, friends, and his community who never let him lose hope even when his test results kept fluctuating from positive to negative, every two days. Arjun was also the patient who was under treatment at STNM Hospital’s COVID-19 Ward the longest – 28 days. 

Fortunately for Arjun, his family and community united in concern for his speedy recovery, but this isn’t the case everywhere. 

We can’t deny, all of us have received a WhatsApp forward video at least once, of a patient boarding the COVID-19 ambulance, scared and at their most vulnerable, will never once look into the camera due to society’s conditioning to feel as if they are guilty.

In the 80s when HIV/AIDS initially was reported, due to people’s lack of understanding and misconception, the disease terrified people. It was unheard of that a public figure, let alone a princess would be caught dead holding hands of an HIV/AIDS infected patient. Princess Diana, in 1987, who not only opened the United Kingdoms’ first HIV/AIDS unit which was built to care for patients infected with the virus at London’s Middlesex Hospital, was photographed shaking the hand of a man who was suffering from the illness. 

social stigma
      Picture Courtesy: Hans Deryk/AP

She did it without wearing gloves, which not only questioned the misconception that the disease spread by touch. From an excerpt from a BBC show, “She showed in a single gesture that this was a condition needing compassion and understanding, not fear and ignorance”.

Let us all be better people, educating one’s friends and family members who may not know better. Be Princess Diana in a world that is dark and bleak.

Don’t take pictures or videos of COVID-19 infected people who are being ferried to the hospital.

Don’t discriminate against a person for being primary contacts and family members of an infected person.

Don’t spread rumours and gossip about an infected person’s last location, you are not their GPS. 

The author is Diki Choden Bhutia. She can be reached at dchoden05@gmail.com

Disclaimer: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer and not of the Sikkim Chronicle. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

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Serving round the clock: Sikkim’s working-class heroes

A subtle revival of North-Easterners’ double identities at the time of COVID-19

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