Coronavirus Stigma Lingers Long After Disease Fades

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Coronavirus Stigma Lingers Long After Disease Fades

The World Health Organization has warned that shunning people who have recovered from Covid-19 can make it harder to control outbreaks.

Photo: issei kato/Reuters

TOKYO— Shuichi Takatori spent two weeks in the hospital this fall with a fever after catching Covid-19. He recovered, went back to work and now feels fine.

But the disease lingered on in a different way—in the stigma Mr. Takatori says he felt from society. The 60-year-old member of Japan’s Parliament decided to disclose his illness, although he said he feared the consequences in next year’s election, and word quickly got around.

Japanese lawmaker Shuichi Takatori got Covid-19 in the fall. He recovered and is now back at work.

Photo: Miho Inada/The Wall Street Journal

A restaurant where he had dined called his office to ask for damages. The school basketball team of an aide’s child was disinvited from a tournament. And weeks after his recovery, he says relatives told him not to visit his hometown for a service on the first anniversary of his father’s death.

“I feel even now like it’s something embarrassing,” said Mr. Takatori, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Doctors say the shunning doesn’t make much medical sense, because people who have recovered from Covid-19 are typically no longer infectious. And public-health specialists say turning every infection into a moral failure—which is apt to be unfair, since the path of the virus is so random—can make the epidemic harder to control. For his part, Mr. Takatori said he was taking precautions and has no idea why he got sick.

Still, specialists in how societies respond to illness said the reactions, which have been especially prominent in Asia, were familiar from earlier diseases.

Hitomi Nakayama, a lawyer who heads a working group advising the government on the stigma issue, pointed to the 20th century history of medically unjustified isolation of patients with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Other examples, she said, include the shunning of people exposed to radiation in the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and of those who lived near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors that melted down almost a decade ago.

“We cannot say that Japanese people don’t have accurate information, but they are not good at acting based on science,” Ms. Nakayama said. Infection “turns into something like defilement,” she said. In the native Shinto religion, the community of the person thought to be defiled can also be tainted.

Rahuldeb Sarkar, who grew up in India and works as a doctor in the U.K., said patients with infectious diseases such as Hansen’s disease have been stigmatized for centuries in India, and anyone in contact with them including medical workers may also be shunned. “It appears that this practice got extrapolated when it came to Covid,” Dr. Sarkar said.

Health-care workers in India say people have avoided getting tested even when they have symptoms out of fear that a diagnosis would cost them friends or their job. In videos published in June by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, some former Covid-19 patients said people would shut windows as they passed by or avoid entering the street where an ex-patient was known to live.

The World Health Organization warns that stigma can make it harder to control outbreaks and result in more severe health problems.

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Dicky Pelupessy, who teaches social psychology at the University of Indonesia, said his relative tested positive in a rapid test at his company, but didn’t want to go to the hospital. “He wanted to keep it hidden,” Dr. Pelupessy said. “People are more concerned about stigma” than the disease itself, he said.

A study led by Dr. Pelupessy found one in five former coronavirus patients in Indonesia has experienced discrimination after recovery. Indonesia has one of the lowest testing rates in the world.

Another practical effect is to discourage health-care workers from caring for Covid-19 patients. A government panel in Japan found some nurses quit after day-care centers refused to take their children. In a survey by the Japanese Nursing Association, 20% of nurses said they experienced discrimination.

There are fewer reports of long-lasting stigma in the U.S. and Europe, but the risk of taint attaching to the medical profession exists there too. An internet survey of more than 3,500 Americans and Canadians found one-third of respondents reported they avoided health-care workers. The survey, by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Regina in Canada, concluded, “There are important, under-recognized, and widespread stigmatizing attitudes toward healthcare providers.”

If the pandemic fades in 2021 with the availability of vaccines, it’s possible the stigma won’t linger. Shigeki Sakamoto, president of the government-affiliated Center for Human Rights Education and Training in Tokyo, said that in contrast with Hansen’s disease, Covid-19 usually doesn’t leave a physical mark, so people may lose interest in singling out those with past infections.

For now, however, Mr. Takatori, the member of Parliament, said the problem is likely to spread, with thousands of people in Japan newly diagnosed each day with the coronavirus.

When Parliament reconvenes in January, he plans to submit a bill barring discrimination against current and former Covid-19 patients and the people around them, although it wouldn’t impose penalties on violators. Some local governments have adopted similar ordinances.

“I’ve got to do something about this discrimination and the violations of human rights,” Mr. Takatori said. “I don’t want to waste my ordeal.”

Write to Miho Inada at miho.inada@wsj.com

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Appeared in the December 28, 2020, print edition as ‘Stigma of Covid-19 Infection in Japan Outlasts the Illness.’

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