Gloved hands holding a syringe and vaccine dose.
Image Source: National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

How Stigmatizing Diseases Harms Public Health and Communities

As new cases of the monkeypox virus increase in the U.S. and Europe, commentary and imagery used by some western media have reinforced “homophobic and racist stereotypes” of LGBTQ+ and African people (UNAIDS). The reporting of the virus has depicted and directed the blame toward these groups, stigmatizing them and posing a threat to public health. Scapegoating marginalized communities, specifically African countries, is far from new. Like coverage of previous epidemics and the current pandemic, biased reporting and mischaracterizations of these diseases and the presumed source create negative narratives that often result in racist and violent attacks.

Although the current monkeypox outbreak is happening in at least 26 countries where it’s not endemic, like the United Kingdom and Portugal (NBC News), imagery of the disease has largely shown images from Africa or Black and African people with the virus. This feeds into stereotypes of Africa being the epicenter of diseases and a foreign threat to western civilization. 

TAKE ACTION

• Read up on the history and stigma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how biased misinformation incite discrimination toward certain marginalized groups.

• Use the Stigma Language Guide to avoid using stigmatizing language when talking about diseases.

News media and editorial teams:
• Review and update editorial practices and policies that perpetuate biased or stereotypical ideals of marginalized people and non-white countries.

• Avoid visuals that assign a face or race to a disease or viral outbreak.

While a “significant portion” of the cases have been identified amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community, the viral disease affects anyone that comes in physical contact. Yet queer people, specifically men who have sex with men (MSM), are also being associated with the monkeypox outbreak and messaging. The consequence of such biased misinformation is hysteria and fear that overcomes evidence-based action, hindering effective health measures and identification. The reporting mimicked the HIV/AIDS response, or lack thereof, in the 1980s that classified the virus as being exclusively a “gay disease” that spread amongst men who had sex with men. This false perception allowed the virus to spread and take the lives of those who didn’t fit into the box of who was perceived to get HIV/AIDS (NBC News). 

Institutions like the Foreign Press Association Africa and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) have criticized the biased coverage. 

“We condemn the perpetuation of this negative stereotype that assigns calamity to the African race and privilege or immunity to other races,” FPAA said in a press release. “What is the convenience of using such images to tell the world how Europe and America are reeling from the outbreak of monkeypox? Is the media in the business of ‘preserving White purity’ through ‘Black criminality or culpability?'”

In 2015, the World Health Organization advised against the association of diseases, infections, and syndromes with specific places or people as it had “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors” (WHO). They mention how “certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals.” As a result, those portrayed are negatively impacted. 

Throughout history, diseases and viruses have been politicized and racialized to other marginalized people and countries, preserving a white-dominant hierarchy globally. Jewish people were initially persecuted for the Black Death. Haitians were wrongfully accused and imprisoned for introducing HIV/AIDS to the U.S, which was simultaneously untreated and labeled a “gay disease.” The Ebola outbreak was blamed as a consequence of West African practices (NPR, HRC, Washington Post). 

More recently, COVID-19 was labeled the “China virus” by President Trump, resulting in anti-Asian sentiments and violence. The subsequent Omicron variant discovery in southern African countries resulted in “discriminatory” travel bans and racist cartoon caricatures

Thanks to biased reporting and depictions, the association between a disease or virus and a marginalized community influence public perceptions of these communities and regions, often leading to dehumanization. Western news and media stereotypes fictionalize Africa as being an impoverished, disease-ridden, and ungovernable “Dark Continent”—ignoring the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery inflicted by western governments—exposes residents to dehumanizing commentary and policies (BBC).

In 2020, two French doctors proposed using African people as guinea pigs for COVID-19 vaccines that they would be unable to otherwise receive due to global vaccine inequity (BBC, The ARD). Currently, only 17% of Africans are fully vaccinated compared to the 66.7% of U.S. residents (Africa CDC, CDC). Before the coronavirus, the U.S. also placed travel restrictions for travelers from​ Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa (CDC). Not only were American patients able to receive life-saving treatment that wasn’t accessible to their West African counterparts, but African immigrants in the U.S. experienced stigma similar to communities stigmatized by the AIDS epidemic (Vox, Washington Post, University of Cincinnati).

To counter the stigmatizing language, xenophobic imagery, and stereotypes assigned by biased reporting in western media, the UNAIDS advocates responding with a rights-based, evidence-based approach and instituting an “international coordination and solidarity” in global health issues. 

“This outbreak highlights the urgent need for leaders to strengthen pandemic prevention, including building stronger community-led capacity and human rights infrastructure to support effective and non-stigmatizing responses to outbreaks,” said Matthew Kavanagh, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director. “Stigma hurts everyone. Shared science and social solidarity help everyone.”


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Biased reporting and imagery of the monkeypox outbreak reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes.

• Misconceptions of diseases negatively impact everyone, particularly more vulnerable populations.

• Western media and governments often attribute diseases and viruses to people of color and non-white countries. 

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