Social Stigma, Bullying, and the Pandemic

Stigmatizing infectious disease is bullying that undermines resilience.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

vperemencom/ Pixabay
Source: vperemencom/ Pixabay

This post was co-authored by George S. Everly., Jr., PhD and Andrea N. Everly

As the world anxiously waits to see how the COVID-19 plays out, we struggle for ways to regain the sense of control we lost to this viral threat. Historically, during times of pandemic, one often used, but remarkably toxic, means of achieving a false sense of control is stigma. The word stigma is derived from the Latin and Greek word meaning to mark. Verbal (name-calling, labeling) and physical stigmata (tattoos, brands) were given to criminals, the physically ill, and others who were perceived to be undesirable or otherwise threats to the community. In the paper, “Why People Stigmatize” the authors argue that in modern, even recent, times, human beings generate verbal and psychological stigmata to ostracize those perceived to be a threat to the community (Neuberg, Smith, and Asher, 2000). Sadly we are already beginning to see anger, stigmatizing hashtags, and ostracization appearing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social Stigmatization Is a Form of Bullying

Jeff Green, a reporter for Bloomberg online, makes an important point that we should all consider, “Covid-19 may be remembered as the disease that divided us. The pandemic is affecting some groups more than others, stirring up a toxic mix of fear, resentment and schadenfreude. Coronavirus has become a lightning rod for bullying…” (March 21, 2020).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2012), bullying is intentional abuse and intimidation. While bullying can manifest itself as physical or verbal aggression, it can also manifest itself in the spreading of harmful rumors, social exclusion (ostracization), name calling, even dehumanizing. In that intimidation and social exclusion reside in the origins of stigmatization, it reveals itself to be an often subtle yet destructive form of bullying.

Stigma Does Not Protect

While acknowledging in early history during times of contagion the use of stigma was designed to achieve a protective physical distancing, the authors conclude that stigma is no longer protective and in fact can be counterproductive to our society. “Stigmas do not increase the ability of modern society to survive infectious diseases, but in fact may be important drivers of problematic disease dynamics and act as catalysts for failures in protecting public health” (Smith & Hughes, 2014, p.135).

Social stigmatization fails to protect society for several reasons. If one is aware that the diagnosis of an infectious disease results is social stigmatization, one is:

1. Less likely to seek testing or diagnostic assessment.

2. Less likely to seek treatment.

3. Less likely to receive early treatment that could lessen severity and early contagion.

4. Likely to recover more slowly overall and thus more likely to spread the disease even further.

5. More vulnerable to becoming psychologically isolated and depressed.

6. More likely to experience stress, anxiety, and immunosuppression.

7. More likely to feel hopeless and engage in maladaptive health behaviors.

The net effect of this cascade of phenomena consequently reduces the collective physical and psychological resilience of the entire community. Social stigmas create a destructive “us vs. them” paradigm (Sapolsky, 2017).

Ending Social Stigma and Infectious Disease (ID)

“In the modern age, there is no fitness advantage to stigmatizing those infected with IDs. The harms of ID stigmas are significant, and they provide no benefit to public health” (Smith & Hughes, 2014, p.137). So how do we reduce the innate propensity to create “us vs. them” situations?

1. Practice compassion. Practice physical distancing, not social-psychological distancing.

2. Counter stereotypes and view disease victims as individuals uniquely struggling, uniquely coping.

3. Practice “perspective-taking” wherein you mentally switch roles with the victim of the disease and strive to momentarily experience and understand the world as it may be like for them.

4. Foster group cohesion by acknowledging the disease as the threat, not the victims of the disease.

5. Foster collaboration and group synergy. Gain insight from those who have the disease and from those who have recovered from the disease as to how to best combat the disease.

Arguably, not only can embracing these recommendations serve to defeat the toxicity of stigma, they can serve to bring added power to the fight to conquer the disease.

© 2020, George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., and Andrea N. Everly.


Neuberg S.L., Smith D.M., Asher T. (2000). Why people stigmatize: Toward a biocultural framework. In: Heatherton, T.F., Kleck, R.E., Hebl, M.R., Hull, J.G., eds. The social psychology of stigma, pp. 31–61. NY: Guilford Press.

Sapolsky, R.M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. NY: Penguin Press.r Europe

Smith, R.A. & Hughes, D. (2014). Infectious disease stigmas: Maladaptive in modern society. Communication Studies 65 (2), 132-138.

World Health Organization. (2012). Risk behaviours: being bullied and bullying others. In: Currie C., Zanotti C., Morgan A., et al, eds. Social determinants of health and well-being among young people. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: International report from the 2009/2010 survey, 191-200. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office fo