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Social stigma poses threat to coronavirus survivors

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People wait for coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic in Seoul, in this June 30 photo. Yonhap
People wait for coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic in Seoul, in this June 30 photo. Yonhap

By Bahk Eun-ji

Three out of 10 coronavirus patients said they faced mental health challenges after they were confirmed to have COVID-19, a study showed Thursday. The patients surveyed expressed a greater fear of the social stigma attached to them than concern about the illness itself.

The Gyeonggi Public Health Institute and a research team from the Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health unveiled the results of a survey about awareness of COVID-19 conducted on 110 patients, as well as 1,388 people in contact with them and 2,589 members of the general public in Gyeonggi Province from June 3 to 17. Among the confirmed patients, 43.6 percent said they were shocked when they tested positive for the virus, and 51 percent felt insecure after they were quarantined.

The survey asked about the experiences of COVID-19 patients such as their physical symptoms, feelings when they heard news about COVID-19, the level of trauma faced after recovery and the resulting social stigma they suffered.

The research team first used three questions to investigate who the respondents thought was responsible for virus infections. Of the general public, 30.7 percent said the patients were responsible for catching the disease, while only 9.1 percent of the confirmed patients and 18.1 percent of their acquaintances said so.

When asked if they agreed with the statement "COVID-19 patients are not at fault for contracting the disease," 60 percent of the patients said "yes," compared to just 34.6 percent of the public.

In response to the statement "Patients could prevent coronavirus infection on their own," just 13.6 percent of confirmed patients and 29.2 percent of patients' acquaintances agreed, but 41.2 percent of the general public believed the statement to be true.

The confirmed patients were more concerned about social stigma than their physical health, the survey showed.

When asked to rank on a scale of up to five points the degree of fear felt by confirmed patients on a variety of things, they gave the highest ranking to fear of criticism and mental damage from the community, at 3.87. That is higher than 2.75 points for fear of not fully recovering physically and 3.46 points for fear of being infected again after complete recovery.

"The patients fear much more social damage they will cause than whether they are completely cured or re-infected. If individuals are blamed for the outbreak of the infection, they may be branded as perpetrators. We have to understand that such stigma does not help us overcome the infectious disease crisis," said Yoo Myung-soon, a professor of the SNU Graduate School of Public Health who led the study.

Bahk Eun-ji

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