I first became intrigued by the issue of COVID-19 stigma when Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were the first celebrities to ‘come out’ and announce that they had contracted COVID-19, back in March 2020. Their frank disclosure, at a time when COVID-19 was a non-vaccine treatable potentially deadly disease (as it still is for much for the world) intrigued me. In previous epidemics, such as HIV, celebrities hugely feared people finding out their status. It was only the bravery, many years in, of Magic Johnson and, more recently, Charlie Sheen that we know that any celebrities have been living with HIV. In contrast, once Tom Hanks had announced his COVID-19 status, it seemed like all the great and the good were COVID-19 positive: Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Idris Elba. Chinese actress Tang Yifei made an impassioned thank you on social media to those who cared for her relatives with COVID-19. At the same time, reports of medical workers being feared, even assaulted, because of COVID-19 contamination fears, were emerging. It didn’t all make sense. If COVID-19 was highly stigmatized, as indeed the evidence was showing, then why weren’t celebrities worried about disclosing their status and damaging their careers?
This got me thinking about how and why and in what circumstances COVID-19 is stigmatized. It turns out to be a very complex question. Furthermore, it is one that is ongoing; I received an email today telling me that if I wanted to teach on the University of Queensland campus this year, I would have to prove my vaccination status. Barriers, and accompanying social derogation, awaits those who choose to, or cannot, be vaccinated; a form of ‘vaccine stigma’. I am a UK academic and the email didn’t apply to myself as it turned out. But the issue of how stigma is evolving over time, in response to localized contexts, is one that has continually been playing on my mind throughout the pandemic.
To this end, I have created a to explain the processes of emerging stigma in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, I argue that stigma, like COVID-19 itself, is in a state of ‘mutation’, changing in response to context and new information. There are three proposed aspects of stigma mutation, so we can evaluate stigma along all of these dimensions:
An example of the importance of lineage in driving stigma was the reactivation of existing prejudices concerning Chinese or Asian people as part of the ‘origin story’ of COVID-19. These were then used in political discourse to deflect blame and draw attention elsewhere (e.g., Trump’s continued use of terms such as the ‘China Virus’ or even ‘Kung Flu’.)
Beyond origin stories, other examples of stigma emerged over time, such as in relation to weight, with discourses of individual responsibility minimising the socio-economic backdrop to poor diet and poverty. Stigma also shows localized variation; for example, in Iraq intense stigma towards sufferers and health-care workers was driven by multiple factors, including required changes to traditional death rites which are usually private and family-based.
I have suggested that having (wholesome, white, middle-class, talented) Tom Hanks as the original ‘poster boy’ for COVID-19 disclosure may have set a precedence of transparency, which whilst it cannot prevent stigma developing, provided a valuable counter-balance by putting a face to a scary unknown disease. Other celebrities such as Dolly Parton have campaigned to support vaccine programmes (although equally, celebrities can and have propagated conspiracy theories).
The story of COVID-19 stigma is not over. There have been subtle changes in what is socially devalued and derogated, and what attracts attention and blame. One of my students, on reading my paper, suggested that it is no longer having COVID-19 that is stigmatized, but hiding one’s status as infected. This trope of judging people if they cause harm to ‘innocent others’ has already been identified in relation to behaviours such as smoking. Those who knowingly infect others are thus blamed. As I explained above, social derogation and societal barriers await those who are not vaccinated. It may be that we feel those barriers are necessary for the social good. However, often such divisions are projected onto ‘other’ already disadvantaged groups. We need to pay attention not only to where Covid-19 stigma emerges, but what might disrupt or prevent it.
I develop the idea of stigma mutation further in my research article Stigma mutation: Tracking lineage, variation and strength in COVID-19 stigma published in Sociological Research Online.
Hannah Farrimond is a Senior Lecturer in EGENIS (Exeter Centre for the Study of Life Sciences), Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology Department, University of Exeter, UK.