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Covid-19 stigma: Revealing the pre-existing fault lines in our society


During the 1970s, the famous German philosopher Jürgen Habermas suggested that a pacemaker would be a good metaphor for a society’s ability and willingness to integrate and resettle marginalised groups within its midst. Despite South Africa having recently experienced an era of bruising decolonisation, Habermas’s idea could be extrapolated to suggest that the stigma surrounding Covid-19 patients can gauge the emotional well-being of South African society in both pre-existing fault lines and throughout the pandemic.

As we have come to discover, Covid-19 is the disease caused by a new coronavirus, named Sars-CoV-2. It is the seventh coronavirus known to researchers in the field and has created havoc throughout the world. 

On April 7, Netcare’s St Augustine’s Hospital, Durban’s flagship private hospital, was forced to close its doors after five patients died and at least 48 health workers tested positive for the disease.

Notable is the fact that health workers from the hospital claimed that they have been ostracised in their communities and experienced problems accessing public transport because of the stigma attached to Covid-19. Similarly, in Khayelitsha, an informal settlement just outside Cape Town, people infected with the disease were hounded from their homes and forced to leave.

In his book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963), a fitting title and one well worth reading, Erving Goffman, the well-known American sociologist, defines stigma as “the central feature of the stigmatised individual’s situation in life … It is a question of … ‘acceptance.’” Researchers in Hong Kong, a former British colony before it was returned to China amid much fanfare in 1997, refer to this phenomenon “a label placed on an individual or group that results in devaluation and association with undesirable characteristics.”

In the context of HIV/Aids stigma, the Sunday Times has reported Vuyiseka Dudula-Majola, director of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management in Stellenbosch University, as saying that South Africa “cannot afford another wave of stigma”.

But, South Africa is a stigmatising, shaming culture.  That’s what we do in this country: we shame with stigma. Since the democratic elections in 1994, South Africans have had a remarkable tolerance for stigmatising and marginalising powerless groups. Some of these that come to mind are bias(es) towards foreign Africans, sex workers, the homeless, physically and mental disability, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and ex-offenders. The social and economic marginalisation, discrimination and stigmatisation visited upon these groups, among others, are well-known and conceivably lead to members of these groups having, to say the least, diminished life opportunities. 

Research in the United States, for example, has shown that members of stigmatised groups have a reduced life expectancy compared to similar individuals in non-marginalised groups. 

As a conflict criminologist, I have a particular interest in ex-offenders and the ways in which this group has come into being.

In the US, prison abolition activist Michelle Alexander has argued convincingly against the “warehousing and recycling of ex-offenders” which is based on a blueprint for racial profiling reproducing oppression dating from the days of slavery in the Deep South before the American Civil War:

Hundreds of thousands of people are released from prison every year, only to find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy. Most ultimately return to prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Others are released again, only to find themselves in precisely the same circumstances they occupied before, unable to cope with the stigma of the prison label and their permanent pariah status.

The stigma of the prison label, which Alexander pinpoints so well, feeds into high rates of recidivism in countries such as South Africa and the US. South Africa, in particular, might be labouring under re-offending rates as high as 94% while China in the late 1990s, a country which did not stigmatise its offenders at that time, boasted negligible rates of between 6-8%. (Although the Chinese statistics are complex because of a tendency to execute repeat offenders and the unapologetic use of brainwashing to achieve desistance, it is nonetheless valuable as it suggests that another reality is possible). The labelling perspective has not been remiss in attracting criticism from conflict criminologists as these scholars contend that the act of labelling is in itself politicised.

To compound the problem, labelling serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy since such stigmatisation is counter-productive to rehabilitation and the eventual resettlement of ex-offenders. Shaming through stigma, rather than integrative shaming, drives the wayward away from mainstream culture into the arms of criminal subcultures with its knock-on recidivism effect.  Mass incarceration, and its corollary the “broken windows” theory of policing, are both inappropriate and ineffective to combat crime in highly unequal societies, such as South Africa. In particular, if the apportionment of sentencing has any meaning or purpose in a democratic society governed by constitutional principles, stigma must go. More than one criminologist has accordingly suggested that “what we need is not a better theory of crime, but a more powerful critique of crime”.

Against this background, it is worth asking why people are inclined to stigmatise others if such actions have such demonstrable negative consequences for both the labeller (the person who feels entitled to label) and the labelled. Scholars working on the effects that stigma has on the lives of members of marginalised communities or groups, have advanced four explanations for stigma and it is worth pondering these motivations to gauge them for rational content.

Firstly, it has been suggested that people are stigmatised on irrational grounds on a visceral level as justification to exclude them from legitimate competition for resources.

Secondly, it has been argued that ideological constructs, such as Melvin Lerner’s Just World hypothesis, serve as justification for entitlement which underpins the thinking that whatever comes your way is somehow deserved because we ultimately live in a just world. In this way, poverty and other misfortunes which have befallen others have been (silently) sanctioned.

Thirdly, it has been contended that if we are unhappy about our own choices, making others who find themselves in worse circumstances even more miserable than they are, would somehow validate our own shaky choices.

Finally, Gloria Allred, the famous feminist attorney based in Los Angeles, suggests that “power only answers to power.” It is known, for example, that during World War II, after Pearl Harbour, in general only impoverished Japanese people resident in the US were interned. Well-heeled professional and affluent Japanese living in the US at the time were not harassed. Said in another way, the powerless will be unapologetically trampled for the powerful and wealthy to get ahead.

In conclusion, the appearance of  Covid-19-stigma in South Africa has highlighted the pre-existing fault lines which have allowed a number of marginalised groups (some noted above) to fall through the cracks. It is contended that the elucidations which have been advanced for stigma are completely unjustified. They merely feed off the stereotype and are embedded in unconscious, unexamined politicised and self-serving biases. 

It seems plausible, for example, that imprisonment as our dominant sentencing regime has not delivered on its promise of reducing crime and, especially, has failed to make inroads into our unsustainable rates of recidivism. In fact, the “revolving door” of the prison might even have exacerbated the problem. Moreover, as noted above, if the principle of apportionment of sentencing has any meaning in a criminal justice system ensconced in an open democracy founded on constitutional principles, stigma should have no place in our society.

Habermas’s notion of compassion as a societal pacemaker should give us pause to rethink the empty justifications for generalised stigma in our otherwise uncaring society. Perhaps in its aftermath, once the virus has run its course, we might be inspired, in the light of our own losses, to be more compassionate towards the marginalised hordes “accommodated” on the fringes of our society.  

Our indifference to the fate of others is as much a virus, albeit an unexamined social one, as Sars-CoV-2 and at least as infectious. If we are serious about social transformation, we have to engage with stigma.

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Casper Lӧtter
Dr Casper Lӧtter is a conflict criminologist affiliated with North-West University’s School of Philosophy (Potchefstroom), South Africa as research fellow.

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