As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and we get out and about again as everything re-opens, contracting COVID is still a scary prospect for a lot of us. If a friend tests positive for COVID-19, it’s important to be aware of not perpetuating A negative idea attached to someone because of a specific characteristic, that leads to them being treated poorly by others.stigma It’s totally possible to balance making your mates feel supported instead of stigmatised.

Back of a young person walking down the street and feeling down

What is COVID stigma and what are the impacts?

Content note: discussion of COVID-related racism

COVID stigma can happen in different ways, and ironically, often when people do the right and responsible thing. For example, some people who were asymptomatic and then ended up testing positive for COVID-19, have been blamed for spreading the virus to others even though they didn’t know they were infectious at the time.

There has also been significant racial stigma during the pandemic, where ethnic groups are unfairly blamed for spreading the virus. For example, many ethnic groups in areas that have had COVID outbreaks have experienced increased racism like negative media representation or street harassment, even though they’ve done right by the community in going to get tested. Or in other cases, as new COVID Also called ‘strains’, variants are different types of the same virus. Some are more contagious than others.variants are found in different countries and reported responsibly, people from that country may experience racism.

These kinds of social stigma can be harmful to people’s mental and physical health. Impacts can include:

  • People avoiding getting tested for fear of having to deal with the potential ‘domino effect’ and stigma of having COVID-19.
  • Feeling emotionally worn out by racialised COVID stigma, which can compound other COVID anxieties.
  • People who have tested positive keeping it to themselves because they don’t want to blamed, embarrassed or guilt-tripped.
  • People still attending social events ‘like normal’ even if they’ve been a close contact of someone with COVID, or are showing some COVID symptoms, to not raise suspicion with their friends.
  • People delaying getting the healthcare they need, when they need it, out of feelings of shame or guilt.
  • Feelings of distrust within a friendship group, causing personal anxiety about catching up.
  • People not disclosing to their workplace that they’ve had COVID (or even been sick with something else that has similar symptoms to COVID) because they may get taken off the roster for a while.

Testing positive to COVID-19 can be distressing for someone because of the physical symptoms, but also because of how people might treat them.

How can we deal with COVID stigma?

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we; getting COVID is not someone’s ‘fault’. There’s lots you can do in your social group to reduce stigma.

  • Use neutral and humanising language when you talk about COVID-19, instead of negative or fear-inducing language. For example, say someone “got COVID” or “contracted COVID.” Don’t say things like they “spread the virus,” “are a COVID victim/COVID case” or “were infected with COVID.”
  • Share facts only. Stigma can be perpetuated by misinformation. Correct your friends’ misconceptions and be careful to share fact-checked information yourself.

Read more about fact-checking COVID information

  • If you feel like someone in your group is fuelling stigma with misinformation or negative comments, call it out. It might feel daunting but remember that it’s a good way to assert your boundaries and/or stand up for the wellbeing of others. It can be as simple as saying something like, “that video you shared feels like it focuses on fear, but let’s remember we’re talking about real people,” or even just a simple, “that’s not funny.”
  • When people dwell on the fear and stigma around contracting COVID, remembering the strong protection of vaccination can be reassuring. For example, you can redirect a conversation by saying something like, “whenever I see statistics that make me start to worry, I remember how if I get COVID it’ll probably be pretty mild because I’m vaccinated. That really helps my peace of mind.”

How can I support a friend in home quarantine?

If you do know someone who has COVID, it’s important to treat them with dignity and respect. On top of the physical symptoms of having COVID-19, having to quarantine while sick with COVID-19 can cause anxiety, stress, despair, or uncertainty. You can be a good friend by supporting someone in quarantine in a way that is appropriate for your capacity and your boundaries. 

Make specific offers to help. While well-intended, messages like “let me know if there’s anything I can do!” can be hard to respond to. Your friend might have trouble asking for help or knowing what’s appropriate to ask of you. Instead, you might like to try making specific suggestions, for example:

  • Is there anything I can pick up for you and drop off at your place?
  • Do you have enough food?
  • Is there any medication I can help you get?
  • Do you need help looking after your pets or walking your dog while you’re in quarantine?
  • Can I drop off any fun activities for you to do at home?

Specific offers are a way to help your friend in a way that still fits with your own boundaries of what you feel comfortable with coming out of lockdown. Plus, this opens a conversation where your friend can feel comfortable being specific about their needs too.

Young person lying on the couch and talking on the phone

Check in with them. Quarantine is lonely, which can make it hard to take care of yourself. If you have a friend who’s tested positive for COVID-19, emotional support can go a long way in keeping them motivated to get through it. You might like to organise within your friendship group to take turns calling your friend in quarantine or organise a group catch-up online. It’ll be hard for your friend to watch the rest of the group catching up in person through social media, so make an effort to still include them.

For some people, contracting COVID can cause heightened anxiety for all sorts of reasons. For example, some young people have not been able to get fully vaccinated yet, or have pre-existing health conditions, or live with vulnerable people, which can make getting COVID confronting. Be aware of this and the real impacts it can have on their health when you check in with them.

Avoid making them feel unnecessarily nervous. Don’t ask lots of questions about how they contracted COVID, if the person they contracted it from was vaccinated or not, or dwell on any other points that they can’t do anything about. If you’re asking because you’re worried that you may have contracted COVID from this friend, getting a COVID test is the most effective way to find out.

If you were a close contact of your friend and have to isolate too, think about how getting COVID-19 may likely be an isolating and nerve-wracking experience for them. Although it may be disappointing to be in isolation again, remember that stigma or blaming your friend is not positive or productive for either of you.

 Look out for their safety. Unfortunately, more time spent at home during the pandemic has increased cases of domestic violence, including for people who had never experienced it. If you have any sense that your friend may be unsafe, you can check in on their safety on the phone with ‘yes/no’ questions – even just asking, “do you feel safe?” – to help them feel safe to disclose anything to you. You can also remind them that they’re legally allowed to leave quarantine at any time to seek emergency accommodation.

Information about domestic and family violence and COVID-19

As restrictions ease, everyone has a different barometer of what they feel comfortable doing based on their personal circumstances like their health, what they do for work, or who they live with. If you are particularly cautious about contracting COVID, you might feel a bit nervous about catching up with a friend who has had COVID-19. However, don’t exclude them after they’re no longer contagious. If you trust them to be honest with you about testing negative to COVID-19, it’s safe for you to socialise again.

Note: If you feel like you ‘know this logically’ but are experiencing some challenging COVID anxiety that is making you really nervous to catch up, this probably isn’t about your friend. You might like to speak to someone about your mental health and managing your feelings about restrictions ending. This could be a friend, a trusted cultural or community role model of yours, a school counsellor or a youth counsellor. 

Counselling services for young people

headspace 

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800

QLife (LGBTIQA+ support): 1800 184 527

Yarning Safe n Strong: 1800 959 563 

Safe Steps Family Violence: 1800 015 188

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Sources

World Health Organisation, Social stigma associated with COVID-19, 24 February 2020.

Victorian Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, Preparing to quarantine at home with COVID-19: Toolkit for families, October 2021.