Students attend virutal class and study inside the University of Georgia's Main Library on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Some students who have had COVID-19 believe there is a social stigma related to testing positive for the coronavirus. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Prior to being diagnosed with COVID-19, Lily Coffey believed individuals who tested positive for the virus were acting irresponsibly.

After overcoming the illness, Coffey, a freshman sports management major from Gainesville, is trying to be more careful of her surroundings by being aware of any possible exposures she encounters.

“I feel like there’s this stigma that everyone who goes out doesn’t care about the health of others surrounding them,” Coffey said. “Therefore, I do think that people will assume that people who get COVID-19 are irresponsible and selfish.”

Some University of Georgia students who have had COVID-19 believe there is a social stigma related to testing positive for the coronavirus.

“Stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumors and myths,” according to an article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The uncertainty and fear associated with the virus can lead to social stigma, which then produces negative attitudes toward certain individuals and communities, according to the CDC. Social stigma has a negative impact on people who contract the virus and those around them because it can cause someone to hide their symptoms and not get the help they need.  

Accusations of selfishness

Charlie Davis, a sophomore real estate major, tested positive for COVID-19 in June after moving to Athens from his hometown in Augusta. Davis and his friends contracted the virus around the same time, and did not have much outside contact with others other than picking up groceries and food prior to testing positive for COVID-19, Davis said.

“I believe the first thought about someone being diagnosed with COVID-19 is that they are acting selfishly and are not thinking about the security of others around them,” Davis said. “While this is sometimes the case, I think it is safe to assume from personal experience and social media that people are taking the virus seriously.” 

Davis has refrained from returning home because he does not want to risk exposing his parents to the virus.

“I do think that we must still live our lives. Many things can be misconstrued through social media, and as long as I know that I have been safe at the end of the day, no matter how someone else can make my actions look, I am at peace with that,” Davis said.

Jessa Pitcher, a junior social work major from Southlake, Texas, was not expecting a positive COVID-19 test result on Sept. 2. She said her initial surprise was instantly followed by panic and shame.

Pitcher was the first of her roommates to test positive for the virus.

“I couldn’t help but feel like I did something wrong, when the truth is, I’m not even sure what exposed me to the virus in the first place,” Pitcher said. “As soon as people hear the confirmation of a positive result, so much judgement and fear is thrust upon you.”

Pitcher said she had prepared herself mentally for the possibility of contracting COVID-19 once returning to college in the fall. She said being responsible and taking precautionary measures does not make one completely immune to the virus.

In my experience, a few people close to me turned almost hostile and distant, acting out of fear and their own preconceived ideas of the irresponsibility associated with a positive result,” Pitcher said.“It’s almost as if they were casting stones at everyone with a positive result, placing the blame of another’s irresponsibility on a person who was unfortunate enough to catch COVID-19.”  

Negative impact on relationships

UGA department of psychology professor Richard Slatcher is part of a research team for the Love in the Time of COVID project. The project’s goal is to gather data and make sense of the unique social circumstances that have resulted from the pandemic and its ramifications on relationships.

One of the project’s published blog posts explains how the virus has caused both introverts and extroverts to suffer. Through various studies, the team of researchers determined that introverts could be suffering slightly more than extroverts. The study shows that extroverts are spending more time outdoors, exercising and maintaining close social ties by having Zoom calls with friends, all activities associated with greater well-being.

On Sept. 10, UGA promoted on its social media the “see something say something mentality about COVID-19.” The goal was to encourage the university community to take ownership of its actions while also adhering to guidelines published by the Georgia Department of Public Health and the CDC.

Students, faculty and staff are advised to follow the guidelines issued by UGA in order to best protect themselves and others by helping contain the spread of COVID-19, according to the Instagram story.

“The whole ‘see something, say something’ mindset can be helpful if people are outright defying social distancing guidelines and putting people at a greater risk, but it becomes damaging when it affects how we see people,” Pitcher said. “While I believe UGA is doing its best to keep the numbers down and make sure people feel safe, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re promoting a negative social stigma about COVID.”

The UGA community is directed to contact the COVID-19 Student Educational and Response Team if it witnesses any behavior that violates the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

CO-SERT is a temporary Student Affairs-led organization that provides the UGA community with a point of contact, review and response or referral to any questions or concerns regarding COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

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