COVID-19 Op-ed

A Growing Stigma: The Danger of Discriminating Against the Rights of Healthcare Workers

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Muhammad Diaz Kurniawan
Programme Coordinator | Research Analyst at ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada

Whether doctors, nurses, administrative officers, kitchen staff or janitors at quarantine centers, all are at the frontline of handling the COVID-19 pandemic that willing to take risks to save patients’ lives. Many out there play the ultimate role of fighting for the safety of those who are still healthy as those who recover will develop herd immunity once the recovered have been discharged from the hospital.

The success of those at the frontline of the COVID-19 is paramount in the handling of the pandemic, which was first reported at the end of 2019. Therefore, sustenance for them should be made priority by the government and private sectors with social support from the general public, as each party has a role to play in further preventing the spread of this virus.

However, instead of receiving this critical support which they require, health care workers face various difficulties in carrying out their duties. The situation is further complicated by the scarcity of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks and hazmat clothing which is causing an increase of exposure to healthcare workers. The Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) has announced that 24 doctors and 12 nurses have died so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily because they did not use adequate PPE due to the scarcity caused by hoarding of the supplies and also panic buying by society despite the WHO regulations giving the right to PPE for health workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Additionally, healthcare workers are not able to exercise the freedom to carry out their duties. For example in Jakarta, doctors and nurses are not being allowed to enter houses because the community is worried that they will spread the virus. It has also been reported that communities have banned health workers who have died due to exposure from the coronavirus to be buried in the local cemeteries despite receiving guarantee that the condition of the bodies comply with health regulations. It is very clear that, at this point, even the right to be buried humanely has been deprived from those who have fought against this pandemic. An underlying cause of this is stigma.

Stigma in handling the COVID-19 pandemic could have implications for the decline in the performance of the healthcare system. Limiting the movement of healthcare workers, their rejection by the community and community selfishness in the form of hoarding and panic buying of PPE will adversely impact the availability of health facilities and the performance of healthcare workers in treating patients.

This situation almost resembles the social stigma which has been reported in the cases of HIV/AIDS. Stigmatization and discrimination not only occur from the surrounding community with which they intersect, but also from the healthcare workers who intensively interact with them.

From research conducted by the ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada in collaboration with SHAPE-SEA in 2018 on discrimination against the community living with HIV/AIDS, the stigma primarily arises from incomplete dissemination of information on what it means to be HIV/AIDS positive. Further this misinformation has encouraged assumptions-based understanding and a misjudgment of this health condition. The two are also present across cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paranoia is stoked by misleading news and media that highlights the numbers of infections, deaths and recoveries like some sort of competition. The panic created encourages people to resist restrictions and reject the healthcare workers, leading to the discrimination against them.

The key to this situation is to respond. More needs to be done to educate the community in order for this growing social stigma to be avoided. A social campaign such as #ClapForOurCarers, that brings people to appreciate the work of healthcare workers could be an example of alternative way to educate communities about the important role of healthcare worker and as well as maintaining a positive social psychology for everyone. By responding to this growing stigmatization, we are effectively addressing the discrimination against the rights of our healthcare workers, which is a much-needed form of support at the moment. It is time that the community work hand in hand and focus on playing their respective roles in battling the COVID-19 pandemic as it is the only way to bring it to an end and see the community out of the dark.

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