Effect of COVID-19 on Health Discrimination in the Workplace

More than a year has passed since SARS-CoV-2 was officially declared a pandemic. As the virus spread like wildfire, schools were forced to conduct online classes, employees were required to work from home, and public establishments have been called to shut down. 

While governments and other relevant agencies have found ways to mitigate the spread, many who have contracted the illness, are suffering from it, or are closely working with the infected are falling victim to discrimination.


The Rise of the COVID-19 Stigma

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people approach health and safety. Commercial spaces have optimized their sanitation protocols, and the public is now more particular about personal hygiene. Unfortunately, while this development is something to be happy about, the health crisis has also given rise to a COVID-19 stigma.

The fear of getting sick, irrational biases, and false narratives have negatively influenced the way people perceive the infected. Due to this stigma, many tend to become hostile to those who have gotten sick, are caring for the infected, or are part of certain racial groups. 

To give you a better idea of health discrimination’s prevalence as an effect of COVID-19, let’s have a look at those who are mostly affected. 

1. A person who has recovered from the disease

Individuals who suffered from COVID-19 are the most common targets of health discrimination. Those who lack proper knowledge of the disease or take it lightly tend to act hostile or make insensitive comments to those who have recovered from it. Even if these people no longer show any symptoms of the disease, social stigma has tagged them as “unclean.“

To avoid ridicule, those who’ve contracted COVID-19 choose to keep their condition a secret. But much like this virus, gossips spread around pretty quickly, and being at the center may potentially subject them to verbal (and even physical) attacks. This is a significant cause for concern since this prevents the infected from getting professional help.

2. Frontline workers and people living with them

Despite their heroic efforts to keep the public safe, it’s sad to know that frontline workers are also victims of health discrimination. Since healthcare professionals work closely with the infected and essential workers regularly interact with people, the COVID-19 stigma may cause the uninformed to label them “unclean” or a serious health risk. 

Some believe that interacting with frontline workers may get them sick, so they avoid these individuals, even the people living with them.

3. Asians

The COVID-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan, China. It became easy for those with racial prejudices and victims of misinformation to use the disease as a reason to spew racist vitriol and cause distress to Asians. From March to May 2020 alone, BBC reported that over 800 COVID-19-related hate incidents were reported from 34 counties in California. 

COVID-19 should never be used to engage in xenophobic behavior. Over 45% of Asian Adults say that they’ve experienced offensive incidents since the start of the health crisis, which is problematic in every way. These acts of violence force Asians to live in fear, and at the same time, distract people from addressing the pandemic itself.

It’s clear that the COVID-19 stigma can significantly impact the emotional well-being of its victims. Therefore, these behaviors should never be tolerated, regardless of the victim’s health status, profession, or race. The good news is both individuals and organizations can end this stigma by raising awareness and taking preventive measures.


Laws that can Help Protect You from Health Discrimination

Fortunately, lawmakers are fully aware of the prevalence of health discrimination. Several policies were enacted to assist COVID-19 patients and others who have contracted certain conditions and ensure their comfort and safety. If you are a victim of health discrimination in public or at work, being aware of these laws will benefit you.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits all forms of discrimination against disabled individuals. It ensures that they are given equal opportunities and fair accommodations in all sectors of life (employment, government services, etc.). This law primarily accommodates employees in the private sector and works with other regulations to make employers compliant. 

Along with the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act also caters to individuals with disabilities. This policy covers employees of the federal government by granting them financial assistance and ensuring that they are rightfully given opportunities based on their capabilities. Overall, this law makes sure people are evaluated based on their qualifications and not their condition or disability.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants employees the right to take a leave for medical and family-related reasons without the risk of losing their job. It also ensures that professionals receive health benefits even if they’re currently on leave. This ensures the welfare of employees who may have challenges due to pregnancies, critical illnesses, and more. 


What Should Companies Do to Address Health Discrimination?

Employers across all industries are mandated to provide a safe working environment for their staff. Guidelines should be in place to prevent and address health discrimination. Companies that are planning to restructure their policies should consider taking these measures.

Whenever you’re making big decisions for your company, you need to be mindful that your choices don’t put certain employees at a disadvantage. For example, you may be favoring male employees to return to your office with the assumption that your female employees need to stay at home for their children.

You may have good intentions in mind, but this kind of behavior is a form of discrimination. Fair treatment will ensure that your company’s response to COVID-19 remains unbiased.

  • Consider the needs of each employee (workstation setup, shifting, and home working)

Following the previous idea, you must take some time to understand the needs of your employees. Hastily applying a new policy can be consequential since it may not work well for every staff member. 

As mentioned, placing your employees at a disadvantage is a form of discrimination, so you should look to stay flexible over this period. Giving them the option to choose when they want to work, providing tools to help them work from home, and providing other additional benefits can be great ways to show that you care.

  • Provide employees updated information about COVID-19

Considering how rampant misinformation has been during this crisis, you should make sure that all of your employees are fully aware of the latest COVID-19 updates. Sending email blasts or chat updates regarding new COVID-19 strains or resources that discuss the virus’s social stigma will help them stay safe and pave the way for a discrimination-free workplace.

  • Give your staff an avenue to air out grievances

In case one of your employees receives an offensive remark from a colleague, having open communication lines will come in handy. Giving them an avenue to air out grievances will help you manage the situation and make it easier for you to spot potential threats within the company. 

Just remember to create an open-door policy so that your staff will be encouraged to approach and share their experiences with you.

  • Remind your employees that the company will not tolerate discrimination

The best way to prevent health discrimination is to discourage offenders. Instead of staying passive and waiting for an incident to happen, remind your staff that abusive behavior will not be tolerated. Letting them know the possible consequences of doing so will compel them to stay compliant.

  • Have safety protocols in place for possible infections

If an employee gets infected, the last thing that you want is panic among your staff. To ensure that none of your employees do something regrettable and instead help them stay calm, have safety protocols in place. Letting exposed individuals take time off work and providing additional health coverage is a great way to maintain their physical and emotional well-being.


End Health Discrimination

Fear makes people do irrational things, and the rise of COVID-19 stigma has proven that point. Considering how discrimination against the infected and other notable groups has increased, it’s now everyone’s responsibility to stand up against health discrimination. Keeping people informed, practicing empathy, and doing your part to stop COVID-19’s spread are ways to build a better tomorrow.

While there’s still a lot of work to be done, it’s good to know that both individuals and corporations have taken several measures to prevent discrimination. If you suspect that you’re a victim of health discrimination, it will be in your best interest to seek legal assistance.  Reach out to Shegerian & Associates and get in touch with our disability discrimination attorneys today.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.