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Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19

Under the umbrella of the Shame and Medicine project, we have received funding from the UKRI-AHRC “Ideas to Address COVID” rapid response funding call. A collaboration with Co-Investigators Luna Dolezal (Exeter, PI Shame & Medicine), Arthur Rose (Exeter) and Fred Cooper (Exeter), Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 will identify and investigate, through philosophical, cultural studies and historical analyses, the sites and circumstances of shame, shaming, stigma and discrimination during the first 12 months (January-December 2020) of the COVID-19 health crisis. The project is particularly concerned with investigating (1) how stigma and shame are related to uneven distributions of social power and (2) how digital technologies, social media, neoliberal ideologies and rapid global information exchange have conditioned the ‘scenes of shame and stigma’ when compared to previous respiratory pandemics.

Stigma and shame are pressing concerns of the on-going COVID-19 health crisis. Public Health England has called for further research into stigma and discrimination, especially in relation to BAME communities (Beyond the Data, June 2020). Stigma regarding COVID-19 has been identified as an urgent issue by the NHS, Public Health England, WHO, CDC and other health bodies globally. In the UK, shame and stigma have been created and exacerbated by public health interventions (e.g., the first local lockdown produced the stigmatised “lepers of Leicester”; face mask use/non-use has led to both stigma and shaming). Shaming is often the affective vector in public health messaging, both intentionally and inadvertently, and ‘pandemic shaming’ has been repeatedly identified as a powerful and ubiquitous phenomenon. There is an urgent need to understand how social, political and technological features that are unique to the contemporary moment (e.g., social media, rapid global information exchange, neoliberal ideologies) are shaping the ways in which these phenomena are produced, manifested and experienced. This research will produce rigorous scholarly evidence, along with short term evidence-led recommendations to policy makers to assist with clarifying public health messaging, in order to minimize the harms associated with shame and stigma. It will also draw out the implications of the direct and indirect consequences that health policies and practices have for individuals, especially among marginal groups.

We are organizing a ‘Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19’ interdisciplinary seminar series, for more details and to register for talks click here.

Read Luna Dolezal’s, Arthur Rose’s and Fred Cooper’s recent article in The Lancet, ‘COVID-19, online shaming, and health-care professionals’, where they discuss how shame has been part of healthcare workers’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic because of social media use and instances of online shaming.

We have done some preliminary writing exploring the public shaming of frontline doctors during Covid, the positive and negative stigma attached to health workers and the idea the ‘saving face’ is motivating political public health decisions.

Read our recent Blog post Shame, Stigma and COVID-19.

The Exploring Society with COVID-19 platform at the University of Exeter showcases our work that pertains to COVID-19.

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council grant number: AH/V013483/1‌