Sadly, discrimination against groups, including religious communities, that become scapegoats was widely predicted as a likely response to COVID-19 in many settings. Specific instances are indeed emerging.
Worrying examples are reported in Indonesia. In one case a large crowd intercepted an ambulance carrying a body, threatening to set both ambulance and body on fire. In another, a family brought home, with force, a body for burial because they feared that the hospital had not followed religiously appropriate procedures and, significantly, the family had not been able to witness what was done. Both cases involve dangerous actions because they risked spreading the disease. And in both cases the community was concerned in large part about the stigma they would suffer. Such stigma has material consequences such as shunning by neighbors and strict government surveillance, including blocking the people involved from leaving their village.
Anthropologist Lies Marcos highlights the tight links between culture and religion drawing on these examples. Illness carries harms that range well beyond disease. In the history of communicable diseases, with leprosy and HIV/AIDS prominent examples, stigma associated with a disease is often more malevolent than the disease itself. Stigma arises for many reasons, drawing on enduring myths and prejudices. It often extends far beyond the person who is ill to their family and even ethnic or religious group. Stigma links to shame and cowardice. Marcos cites the example of a fellow student in her high school who bled to death after a botched abortion, concealed because her family feared stigma. Collective denial of disease at a national level is another example of how shame and fear translate into denial.
Responding to COVID-19 requires not just information about how to combat the spread of the disease but also honesty that can be difficult to achieve. Communications and messages to inform people and encourage behavior change need to be carefully honed so that they avoid the risks of stigma and ostracism. Ministries of health and other public authorities cannot achieve this alone. Institutions with strong relationships with communities need to play their part. That includes NGOs and religious communities.
Distancing, yes; ostracism, no!
(Based on: June 19, 2020, Jakarta Post article)