While we stand on our balconies or lean out our windows to applaud healthcare workers labouring through the pandemic, many of us also believe these same workers should be isolated from their communities and families.
That’s the conclusion of the first Canadian study of the stigmatization of healthcare workers in Canada and the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of British Columbia research, published last month in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, shows that worry over coming into contact with healthcare workers is not unusual.
More than a third of respondents said they have avoided healthcare workers for fear of infection. One in four went so far as to agree that for the safety of the community, healthcare workers should not go out in public and should have restrictions placed on their freedoms. This was true whether or not respondents noisily celebrated healthcare workers.
“I knew there would be avoidance, but I was surprised at the high numbers,” says the study’s author, University of British Columbia clinical psychologist Steven Taylor. “Cheering from the safety of your balcony is very different than getting into an elevator with a bunch of doctors and nurses.”
The study noted that “shunning, ostracism, and avoidance have been notable features of past pandemics and outbreaks, such as during the SARS outbreak.” Studies in Taiwan and Singapore indicate that during the 2003 SARS outbreak, 20-49 per cent of healthcare workers involved in the care of patients reported being stigmatized in their community.
Taylor and his team based their findings on a random sample of 3,551 people in Canada and the U.S. between May 6 and 19. Participants filled out an online survey in which they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about healthcare workers.
Early in the pandemic – when we understood very little about protecting ourselves against the virus – such fears might have been warranted, says Taylor. After all, some healthcare workers shared those fears, voluntarily separating themselves from their families.
“It was an evolving situation,” says Taylor. “More healthcare workers were getting sick because they weren’t following proper protocols.”
Research suggests COVID-19 is only slightly more prevalent among Canadian healthcare workers than it is among the general population: 0.14 per cent compared to 0.10 per cent, according to a study published in early May on behalf of Alberta Health Services. Experts say some of this difference can be attributed to more testing among healthcare workers.
University of Ottawa’s Ivy Lynn Bourgeault, who studies healthcare workers, including their psychological health and safety, says she wasn’t surprised by the findings. But as Bourgeault points out, the survey was conducted relatively early in the pandemic and people’s fear of healthcare workers may not be quite so high now that proper workplace precautions are in place.
Even so, she worries stigmatization might add to the mental-health burden many healthcare workers already face. Her research shows that when healthcare workers are stressed and burned out, they tend to keep working, even at the expense of their mental health.
“This was even before COVID,” says Bourgeault. “Adding additional stressors is not good.”
Meanwhile, Taylor says he would like to see people make an effort to become properly informed about the risk of COVID-19 among healthcare workers.
“Don’t fall for conspiracy theories and fake news,” he says. “Go to respected news sources and WHO (the World Health Organization). But remember, this is an evolving situation and we can expect inconsistencies (in recommended precautions) as we learn more.”