Sibanye-Stillwater's Eric Moepeng and Dimension Data's Michaela Voller on Covid-19 stigma

Covid-19 can make workplace environments ripe for discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.

With the lockdown being slightly relaxed to level four, and employees who can not work remotely returning to their employer's premises, organisations should be aware of the growing stigma around Covid-19. Sibanye-Stillwater's senior VP of HR Eric Moepeng says it's one of the issues they are particularly concerned about as the virus seems to provoke social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people.

"In the face of fear of contracting the virus, we have noticed the way some colleagues are treating those who have tested positive for the virus and those who have been in contact with them,” says Eric. “There have also been cases of people testing positive and not really wanting to report that they have the virus and not wanting to name the people they have been in contact with since testing positive. Those are some of the things that we are experiencing."

According to the Centre for Communicable Diseases in the U.S., stigma and discrimination have been reflected in peopling associating the disease with certain groups within a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease.

This can result in discriminatory behaviours of social avoidance and rejection, denials of healthcare, education, housing and employment, or even physical violence in extreme cases. This affects the emotional wellbeing of individuals living with the virus and even those suspected of having it. In a workplace environment, it can be extremely detrimental to organisational culture.

"It can deteriorate to the point where you have people taking extreme measures to find out which of their colleagues have the virus and what they're doing... Finding people's mobile numbers and calling colleagues to ask them how they contracted the virus and who they have been in contact with," says Dimension Data HR executive Michaela Volle, who believes that Stigmatisaton may soon become a widespread problem in South Africa.

"It is coming. South Africa is behind the curve in terms of Covid-19 cases compared to the rest of the world, but I fear that in South Africa, with the limited access to medical care and different levels of income and education, we are going to have to ensure that we protect our staff and give them the information that they require. It's important to educate our employees about stigma and how to avoid it.”

Discovery Health has released a few guidelines on what employers can do to prevent colleagues from treating someone differently because they developed Covid-19. First and foremost, it’s about employers not only managing and reducing the risk of transmission but allowing for recovery among employees. This means making sure that everyone follows hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette by creating an environment where employees are aware and see it as a responsibility to monitor symptoms.

Secondly, it’s about protecting those who have been confirmed to have the virus (as well as those suspected of contracting it) from discrimination.

It is also vital, as with any other health condition, that the details of an employee’s health is confidential. So, while employers and managers must make others aware of an increased risk of exposure to Covid-19 virus in the workplace, they must ensure complete confidentiality about people diagnosed with the disease.