Celebs with Covid-19 help to re­duce stigma around Covid-19

When celebri­ties like Tom Hanks, Rita Wil­son and Idris Elba re­vealed they’d con­tracted the virus, they used their plat­forms to com­bat stigma around the ill­ness, writes

Irish Independent - - Coronaviru­s emergency - Ed Power

Idris Elba had never sounded so se­ri­ous — not even when shoot­ing down ques­tions about whether he wanted to be the next James Bond.

“Stay pos­i­tive and don’t freak out,” the ac­tor told his 2.9 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers on Mon­day. “This morn­ing I got some test re­sults back for coro­n­avirus. And it came back pos­i­tive. Yeah, and it sucks.”

Elba (47) added he was “do­ing okay” and wasn’t ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any symp­toms. But he was at pains to stress this wasn’t a time to give in to fear. It was a time for “sol­i­dar­ity” and for hon­esty.

“Trans­parency is prob­a­bly the best thing right now. If you’re feel­ing ill or you feel like you should be tested or that you could be ex­posed… do some­thing about it.”

The Luther star is just the lat­est celebrity to con­tract Covid-19. Last week the coro­n­avirus penny seemed to drop in earnest when we woke to news that Don­ald Trump was shut­ter­ing US bor­ders to the cit­i­zens of the Schen­gen area (quickly ex­tended to Ire­land and Bri­tain), that NBA bas­ket­ball had been cancelled — and that Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wil­son had tested pos­i­tive.

Of the three bomb­shells, for many peo­ple it was the news about Tom Hanks that re­sounded the loud­est. The everyman ac­tor is that rare A-lis­ter whom we feel we could talk to as though they were a reg­u­lar per­son, were our paths ever to cross. Elba, by con­trast, is a bit of an uber-geezer — the most charis­matic guy in the room.

But now he and Hanks were united as coro­n­avirus suf­fer­ers. Closer to home, a large chunk of the na­tion did a dou­ble-take late on Mon­day when Claire Byrne popped up on our screens from her gar­den shed.

With cold-like symp­toms she was be­ing sen­si­ble and self-iso­lat­ing as she pre­sented Claire Byrne Live. There is no rea­son to sus­pect she has coro­n­avirus. But she was prag­mat­i­cally not tak­ing chances. Hanks and Wil­son have since re­cov­ered. And Elba seems in good health — if un­der­stand­ably shaken. Still, sim­ply by speak­ing up and shar­ing their di­ag­noses with the pub­lic they will have gone a con­sid­er­able way in fight­ing the stigma about Covid-19.

“It’s gen­er­ally a good thing when high-pro­file peo­ple de­clare vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and that ‘life’ hap­pens to them also,” says ther­a­pist Tom Evans, who is run­ning one-to-one 30-minute on­line “ner­vous-sys­tem-calm­ing” ses­sions via his self­care.ie web­site to help with coro­n­avirus fear, anx­i­ety and panic. “We get to see they are hu­man too, and just as sus­cep­ti­ble to loss and other dis­tress.

“That re­as­sur­ance helps us feel less iso­lated, less alone, and so we’ll feel stronger. It may be sub­tle and we might not catch it in aware­ness but it’s there. On the other hand, an ex­am­ple of a celebrity self-dec­la­ra­tion be­ing un­help­ful might be if that celebrity por­trays them­selves as a mar­tyr. Then our re­ac­tion to­wards them can be for them to ‘get off the cross as we need the wood’ so to speak.”

When re­ports of the out­break of a new strain of virus in China first reached Ire­land in Jan­uary, they were easy to dis­miss as some­one else’s prob­lem. But as Covid-19 grew closer and closer, so the stigma about be­com­ing in­fected has in­creased.

That’s true even in the ab­sence of a pos­i­tive test. A New York Times re­port about the cruise ship Wes­ter­dam quar­an­tined over Covid-19 fears re­vealed that, even given the all-clear, pas­sen­gers nonethe­less dis­cov­ered they were now pari­ahs.

“As the virus spreads, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple across the coun­try are liv­ing un­der the cloud of hav­ing been as­so­ci­ated with it, how­ever re­motely,” went the re­port. “Some have had long­time friends and neigh­bours dis­ap­pear on them. Oth­ers have had babysit­ters abruptly quit.”

“The cur­rent Covid-19 out­break has pro­voked so­cial stigma and dis­crim­i­na­tory be­hav­iour against peo­ple of cer­tain eth­nic back­grounds as well as any­one per­ceived to have been in con­tact with the virus,” warned a re­cent UNICEF re­port.

“When fear grips us, we’ll fight, take flight or we’ll freeze. Fight takes many forms — one be­ing to at­tack in the form of at­tach­ing stigma. It is a de­fen­sive re­ac­tion,” says Tom Evans.

“Yes it is not okay, it is toxic, but some­thing that hurt peo­ple of­ten do. Mr Trump is do­ing it right now, say­ing it’s a ‘Chi­nese virus’. He is of course set­ting up his own es­cape hatch. We also saw it hap­pen in the ’80s dur­ing the early years of what be­came the AIDs epi­demic.

“It was er­ro­neously la­belled a virus that sought out the gay com­mu­nity. That was a wrong and shame­ful pre­sen­ta­tion and added enor­mously to the suf­fer­ing of those im­pacted, and caused deep dis­tress and shame to a whole sec­tor of so­ci­ety.

“Threat such as this pro­vokes more prim­i­tive

‘Stigma can un­der­mine so­cial co­he­sion and prompt pos­si­ble iso­la­tion of groups

re­sponses — for ex­am­ple, fights in the aisles for toi­let pa­per,” he con­tin­ues.

“Those deeper less-evolved re­ac­tions em­anate from lower-brain, in evo­lu­tion­ary terms. They are part of our core sur­vival in­stinct.

“Whereas the ‘we are all in this to­gether’ [re­ac­tion] is from a more re­cently evolved part of our brain struc­ture.

“When we feel threat­ened, we all have the ca­pac­ity for that prim­i­tive re­sponse. So we all have that ca­pac­ity within — for po­lar op­po­site re­sponses — from char­ity to theft, love and hate, good and evil.”

This isn’t just un­for­tu­nate for the stig­ma­tised par­ties, UNICEF warns. It can ac­tively com­pli­cate at­tempts to con­tain the con­ta­gion.

“It is un­der­stand­able that there is con­fu­sion, anx­i­ety and fear among the pub­lic,” says Unicef. “Stigma can un­der­mine so­cial co­he­sion and prompt pos­si­ble iso­la­tion of groups, which might con­trib­ute to a sit­u­a­tion where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread. This can re­sult in more se­vere health prob­lems and dif­fi­cul­ties con­trol­ling a dis­ease out­break.”

Could celebri­ties speak­ing out help fight the (per­fectly un­der­stand­able) com­pul­sion to run scream­ing for the hills (well, the at­tic now we’re all cooped up at home) at first men­tion of the “C” word? It can cer­tainly only be a pos­i­tive.

The re­cov­ery of Hanks and his wife, both in their six­ties, is a re­minder, too, that, though ev­ery pre­cau­tion should be taken to avoid catch­ing or spread­ing Covid-19, a pos­i­tive di­ag­no­sis is not a nec­es­sar­ily a death sen­tence.

A-lis­ters: Idris Elba, and Tom Hanks and his wife Rita (be­low), all tested pos­i­tive for Covid-19

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