Bedford student Jacqueline Cho experienced COVID-19 related cultural stigma. Photo contributed

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When COVID-19 news began ramping up in February, Jacqueline Cho noticed a shift in the way some people treated her.

The 18-year-old Bedford student was working as a barista at a local coffee shop. She recalled the subtle but definite change in the way some customers looked at her and spoke to her. 

“I’m Korean, so a lot of the stigma that I personally faced really had to do with people who were looking for people who seemed to fit the description of being Chinese,” Cho said in an interview. “They didn’t wait and ask ‘What ethnicity are you?’ before espousing some verbiage.”

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent issued a guide to preventing and addressing social stigma

Among many other dos and don’ts, it reminded people not to attach locations or ethnicities to the disease. “This is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ Chinese virus or Asian virus,’” the document noted.

Cho said the stigma was definitely real, and certainly touched her, her family and friends here in Nova Scotia. She recalled how a few of her Chinese friends dealt with people questioning the cleanliness of Chinese cultural practices and customs, especially around food. 

“I remember going on shifts before Nova Scotia went into quarantine and people were giving me very weird or disturbed looks when I coughed on shift,” she recalled. 

“There were some passive aggressive questions about ‘When was the last time you cleaned something?’ Obviously these are not very tangible acts of racially-based hatred, but it is a lot of microaggressions. It affects you when you have that experience.”

It is these kinds of experiences and their impact that Dalhousie University international development professor Robert Huish is hoping to learn more about as part of his COVID-19 research study examining cultural stigma during the pandemic.

Dalhousie University international development professor Robert Huish. Photo: Twitter

Huish was one of 40 recipients who received funding last month through the newly created Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition. He was awarded $28,600 from a pot of about $1.5 million.

His project will examine the consequences and outcomes of cultural stigma from COVID-19 ordinances in Nova Scotia, New Zealand and Australia. Huish said the goal is to get a better sense of how government policies are furthering stigma and which communities are most impacted.

He said pandemic stigma doesn’t only impact people who appear to be of Asian descent but also those who have had public exposure during COVID. He points to essential workers, food delivery service people and those working in pharmacies, frontline workers at grocery and liquor stores, and taxi drivers.

“We’re also interested in hearing about their experiences as well,” he said.

“What ways have they felt either stigma from other people in society, from official institutions, or even self -imposed stigma? From there we’ll be able to get a sense of what role race and economics played into the scenario.”

Huish said very little is known about the impact of COVID-related social stigma in the Nova Scotia context. There are no general surveys about stigmatization for people of Asian descent, frontline workers, or seniors and others who may have survived the virus.

That’s why his research project will include a website launch this summer. He’s inviting Nova Scotians to fill out a brief survey via that forum about their own experiences regarding COVID-related stigma. He will also use software to “scrub” social media platforms for trending terms to get a sense of where people are targeting their anger and laying blame for the pandemic.

“Stigma is something that is increasingly recognized within health systems and within global health more broadly as being a very serious concern, and the impact that it has on individuals both in terms of physical and mental wellbeing is becoming increasingly recognized,” Huish said. 

“Throughout human history, any time that there’s been a quarantine put in place, there’s always been stigmatization that has gone along with it. We’ve seen that develop during the COVID-19 pandemic. This work is about understanding what that experience of stigma is like and for who.”

Huish said he wants to get a sense of how stigma is generated. From what forums does it emerge, and what does that stigma actually look like for those who’re experiencing it? 

“By comparing all three jurisdictions, Nova Scotia and Zealand and Australia, we’re going to be able to get a sense of what policies, institutional actions and even just societal actions worked to fuel or encourage stigmatization,” he said. 

He believes that can help ensure future health emergencies aren’t branded to a certain group or people or nationality. That’s because the emergency won’t be viewed as “a fearful threat from afar,” but more of a collective problem to overcome. 

Huish said the populist rhetoric from US President Donald Trump blaming China for the pandemic served to fuel pre-existing stigma. Those sentiments directly relate to how policy is shaped and implemented.

If we experience a second wave of COVID-19, another epidemic, a second pandemic, or even a climate change-related emergency, Huish said history teaches us that there’s an eager willingness to blame someone or a group of people. He doesn’t expect that tendency to disappear.

“This has been a very historic trend and so going forward we need to craft responses that are very cognizant of who may be a victim of stigma,” Huish said. 

“We need to find ways to make sure that if we are going to do these universal policies that involve self-isolation and very serious economic impacts of the whole society, that we are very cognizant of who can be further more vulnerable in those scenarios.”

As someone who’s experienced COVID-related stigma, Cho said Huish’s research and the outpouring of support she’s personally received give her hope.

“It may be the social media bubble that I’ve curated to my case, but whenever I saw anyone say anything vaguely racist or had someone come in with a microaggression, I always saw something else that provided helpful information,” Cho said. 

“Especially for preventing COVID-19 or taking care of Asian people or anyone else who might be facing stigma. That was heartening. And whenever I saw that, it tended to be younger people so I am hoping that sentiment continues on.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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