Blaming, shaming could lead to more COVID spread, doctors warn

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A group of Public Health doctors in Nova Scotia is worried that stigma and public shaming is causing some people to delay getting tested for COVID-19, which could allow the virus to spread more easily.

The doctors, who penned an opinion piece on Thursday, say fear and misinformation largely shared on social media is causing some people to lash out and harass others they suspect of having the virus or breaking the rules.

"We've had some situations in which people have developed symptoms, concerned of what others would think, concerned of what their co-workers would think if they were identified as being COVID-positive, what that means for the workplace, and so they end up delaying getting tested," Dr. Ryan Sommers told CBC's Maritime Noon on Thursday.

He's the regional medical officer of health in the northern region, and one of eight doctors who signed the letter.

The doctors say they want Nova Scotians to know how harmful it is to stigmatize people and communities with COVID-19 and the impact it can have on the ability for them to do their jobs.

"We're trying to battle against how misinformation is spread and how social media spreads information sometimes even faster than the actual virus, and so that can result in people listening to their peers more often than to Public Health," Sommers said.

Contact tracers in all of the Atlantic provinces have reported similar problems with COVID stigma and say it's meant people are lying to them about their behaviour.

Black and Indigenous communities face brunt of stigma

During the first wave of the virus last year, Sommers said there were situations where someone who tested positive was identified and harassed on social media or people began targeting their contacts.

"That person's business, their own employees, have been harassed by other members of the community where we haven't even deemed them as high-risk contacts," he said.

In their letter, the doctors say they've witnessed some people and communities face the brunt of COVID stigma and discrimination, including Black and Indigenous communities.

"It is not surprising that communities who have experienced systemic discrimination in Nova Scotia should fear that the same will be true in relation to COVID-19," they wrote.

Last spring, Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang were criticized for singling out North Preston and East Preston, neighbouring Black communities, as "hotspots" for the virus.

Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, deputy chief medical officer of health, has said a long history of systemic and overt racism in health care has lead many Black Nova Scotians to distrust the system.

Public Health is trying its best to gain people's trust, Sommers said.

"We've actually tried to use a number of mechanisms, whether it's engaging with local community leaders or elders in the community or some of the church leaders as a way to contact people and get the word out," he said.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

In an ideal situation, Public Health can trace someone's contacts in 24-36 hours and doesn't need to issue potential exposure notices, Sommers said.

"We try very hard to protect their privacy. If we can do that, we think we can actually help reduce any of the unnecessary misinformation that could be spread out there as well."

'Look at the bigger picture'

While Nova Scotians have been told to report those who break the rules to police, Sommers urged people to use common sense and to be kind.

"I think it's important to really take a step back, look at the bigger picture, try to understand what this situation needs," he said, "and try to get more information or at least notify those who could help obtain more information and investigate what's going on."

There are 11 known active cases of the virus in the province with no new cases reported on Thursday. The doctors say in their letter that even though the case numbers are low, if blaming and shaming continue, it may not stay that way.

"If we act judgmentally or if we fail to speak up to support each other when witnessing blaming and shaming, or if we stop questioning our assumptions and approaches, we cannot expect to maintain our relative safety during this pandemic."

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