Social Work Joins with Public Health to Frame a Response to COVID-19 Stigma and Racism

May 13 @ 9:39 pm
By Communications Office

Interdisciplinary social work and public health panel addresses the long and unfortunate history of discriminatory behaviors, actions, and policies in times of epidemics.

Since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 first made headlines, a growing climate of anti-Asian racism has swept across the world, leading to incidents of violence and discrimination while also fueling anti-immigration activism. Data on infection, mortality, and job loss in the U.S. also shows pronounced racial and ethnic disparities: Black and Latinx populations are the hardest hit, while the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous communities are facing massive hardship and loss.

The many insidious ways that stigma and racism affect our response to epidemics was the topic of an in-depth virtual discussion hosted by the Columbia School of Social Work on April 17. An audience of nearly 1,000 tuned in to hear CSSW Dean Melissa Begg and Professor Robert Fullilove of the Mailman School of Public Health lead a conversation on “Stigma and Racism in Times of Epidemics” with panelists Merlin Chowkwanyun, Mailman’s Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences; CSSW Assistant Professor Alissa Davis; and Karma Lowe, CSSW’s Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

A novel virus by definition arouses fear of the unknown, but the level of panic grows toxic once xenophobia and prejudice enter the mix, panelists said. They went on to highlight the stereotyping of certain populations during the HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and other public health crises—a situation that meant that those directly impacted did not always receive the help they needed, leading to further disease spread.

Commenting on the rising rhetoric of blame in response to COVID-19, Chowkwanyun, a historian whose work centers on community health and racial inequality, highlighted two scapegoating trends that emerge during epidemics. The first is the belief that there is something biologically different about racial minorities that makes them more likely to contract and spread disease. The second is the idea that outsiders spread disease through exoticized behaviors, like hygiene or eating habits.

“When we see these two tropes, we need to confront them head-on,” Chowkwanyun said, also noting that dispelling such myths is key to addressing and treating such widespread health concerns.

Begg noted that this scapegoating extends to the language we use to talk about the pandemic, and highlighted the dangers of the popular rhetoric of “declaring war on the virus.” Lowe added that it is similar to the racialized and coded use of other ‘campaigns,’ such as the “war on poverty” or “war on drugs.” Davis agreed, noting that such rhetoric has often become a cover for discrimination.

Turning to what could be done to counter and mitigate the impact of stigma during the current crisis, panelists agreed on the importance of self-awareness as a starting point for taking action. Lowe suggested tapping into informal networks: “The community members know what the community needs, right?”

Fullilove, whose work has focused on health issues in historically marginalized communities—he serves as the Mailman School’s Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs—described the need for “credible messengers” to establish bonds between social services professionals and the communities most affected by COVID-19. He noted the challenge of overcoming mistrust in African-American communities that have the “filter” of the Tuskegee study, and how having known community members as “credible messengers” can mobilize communities to seek and access critical care.

Expressing concern for the mental health impact of the pandemic on non-white adolescents, Davis, an epidemiologist who specializes in interventions for marginalized populations, spoke of the need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. She stressed the critical role social workers can play in providing much-needed social support.

“We know from research studies that social support can play a major protective role in trying to mitigate the damage that people experience from racism and discrimination,” Davis said. One of the most important ways social workers can take direct action, she added, is to reach out directly and listen to their clients’ concerns.

Begg offered closing insights on the importance of reclaiming narratives about public health, and the opportunity to leverage this shared ordeal into positive social change. “The obstacles are enormous,” she said, “but so is our will. And change has to begin with us.”


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