Coughing and COVID-19
Coughing is our body’s natural response to prevent foreign substances from entering our lungs. It may be caused by a simple foreign object in the throat or as part of a constellation of symptoms associated with certain diseases like asthma, allergies, and colds. However, being the primary symptom in patients with COVID-19, coughing now comes with a different, more stigmatizing connotation.
Having an infectious disease is generally more stigmatizing than non-communicable diseases because you are more likely to get sick or infect others during social interactions. You would probably be more wary of a person who is coughing, sneezing, or appears to have open sores or rashes on their body compared to someone with a heart condition or a stroke. COVID-19 poses a unique threat as it is a relatively new disease with an alarmingly high fatality rate globally, thus causing widespread fear and anxiety. Although we have recently developed vaccines to combat COVID-19, we have yet to see how they will hold up against future variants.
What does the stigma look like?
Apart from the vaccines, non-medical interventions have also been established to curb the spread of the virus. Social distancing and social isolation are key measures meant to not only regulate the time and distance we spend in public, but also to prevent infecting others if we experience or were exposed to someone with worrying symptoms.
Cough etiquette also includes coughing or sneezing into your elbow to prevent spreading the disease. However, these behaviors have now been found to be a source of stress and anxiety. A chronic smoker with a long-term cough reported feeling like a “leper” while he was out shopping, while a person suffering from hay fever expressed feeling on edge about going out, worried about what people would think or say about her sneezing and coughing bouts. On the other side of the coin, research has found that others tend to perceive these people as “inconsiderate” or without social conscience, lacking in knowledge, and lax with enforcement.
How can we combat the stigma?
It is difficult to deny that the overall public perception of these people with cough and sneezing episodes is negative. This can lead to feelings of shame and feelings of being socially undesirable, further contributing to discrimination and social exclusion. From this, we know that this can have detrimental long term effects to one’s mental and emotional health. The stigma can also prompt people to hide their symptoms or delay seeking health care immediately, which will make it more difficult to control the virus’ spread.
Here are 5 ways we can help prevent the stigma (according to the Center for Disease Control):
- Respect each other’s privacy
- Do not share another’s personal health information especially if you were not exposed or involved with this person in any way.
- Educate and communicate
- Explain the risks associated with social interactions.
- Avoid using negative language that can cause stigma. Use positive language instead, as well as sharing accurate information.
- Defend and protect
- Speak out against hurtful speech and behaviors, including online.
- Compassion will go such a long way, especially in these times.
- Use social media responsibly
- Social media can be a powerful platform to educate and spread awareness on the effects of stigmatization against people with COVID-19.
- Seek help when necessary
- If you experience any alarming symptoms, consult your physician immediately.
- Resources for mental health support are widely available. Please do not hesitate to ask for help when you need it.
COVID-19 poses a threat not only to our physical health, but also impacts our social, emotional, and mental well-being. In this period of anxiety and uncertainty, let us continue to observe social distancing measures, social isolation if exposed to or experiencing symptoms, and seek immediate health care when necessary. Compassion and empathy will go a long way, as we each do our part to see the end of this pandemic together.
Mikaela is a sixth year dentistry student at the University of the Philippines.