Covid-19 stigma in China can cost recovered patients jobs, homes

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – For many people, Covid-19 is an inconvenience that has become an undesirable part of normal life.

Not so in China, where zero tolerance means those who contract the virus have been isolated and often disparaged just for getting infected.

Those who have recovered are singled out during regular mass testing, which people in big cities must undergo at least every three days. A history of infection stored in the health apps that track each person can be found by employers, threatening job prospects.

At the extreme, some people have lost their homes and their livelihoods because of Covid-19 discrimination.

One former worker at a government-run isolation facility in Shanghai slept on the streets during parts of June since he could not find work or housing after getting infected.

Employers in Shanghai and nearby cities would not take him, and many help wanted ads specifically said applicants “must not have had Covid-19”, according to his posts on the social media site Weibo.

He confirmed the experience to Bloomberg News after he was contacted via Weibo, though he asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. He faced police harassment for previously sharing the information and subsequently left Shanghai. His posts have since been removed.

Stigma tied to Covid-19 was common everywhere early in the pandemic, when people had no idea what to expect and feared contracting the virus. Now, well into the third year, doctors know who is at risk of serious disease and how the pathogen can spread by wafting through the air.

Most people worldwide have scores of friends, family and coworkers who have been infected, and the majority fully recover. But not in China, where only about six out of every 10,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 – and the vast majority of the 1.4 billion population do not know any of them.

With only 5,226 Covid-19 deaths throughout the pandemic, according to official statistics, the probability of being murdered is higher.

Shanghai’s Hongqiao train station, one of the city’s main transit hubs, became a gathering place for people rendered homeless after getting Covid-19 or for other reasons. One woman, who goes by the nickname A Fen, was found to be partially living in a bathroom stall in the station because she could not get a job due to having been infected, Chinese media reported.

The Covid Zero approach, which deploys strict lockdowns at tremendous economic and social cost, is the main factor driving stigma, said Ms Chen Yaya, a researcher from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. If it does not change, discrimination is likely to continue, she said.

While China has now reined in some of the excesses of the approach, past measures like the wholesale shutdown of factories that detected infection among workers have left a deep scar. Some previously infected workers have struggled to get jobs as supervisors fear such fallout, despite the fact that they likely had some level of immunity.

This lack of awareness about how the virus behaves is common throughout Chinese society because of the low number of infections.

After A Fen’s plight gained widespread attention, authorities including the Shanghai government and the Ministry for Human Resource and Social Welfare said that employers should not discriminate against those that had Covid-19. Doing so would, they said, would breach labour laws. She has since been hired by the courier company SF Express, The Paper reported.