COVID-19: Human Rights, Discrimination and Social Stigma

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many long-existing social inequities experienced by racialized and marginalized communities. The fear and anxiety of this global pandemic has also fueled increased incidents of racism, discrimination, and social stigma in Canada and around the world.

At Lakehead University, we believe that a safe and healthy university community is one where the human rights of all of our members are respected and realized. We recognize that when a person's or group's rights are not respected or realized, there is a distinct and measurable decrease in their health outcomes.

What we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the health of one person is so strongly interconnected with the health of the community. When one person gets sick, we all have the potential to get sick. Similar to the spread of a virus, discrimination not only affects the health of the person or group targeted by that discrimination, but it also affects the health of the community as a whole. And, similar to the need to address the outbreak of COVID-19, we, as a university community, need to address the outbreak of discrimination and social stigmatization that has accompanied the virus.

What are your rights?

Under Ontario's Human Rights Code, all students, faculty, and staff at Lakehead University have the right to learn, live, and work in an environment that is free from discrimination and harassment because of a personal characteristic.

At Lakehead University, we have made a commitment realizing these rights through our 2019-2024 Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan, titled Accessing Excellence Together.

Under the Student Code of Conduct - Non-Academic (Section II), all Lakehead students have "a. The responsibility to support an environment free from harassment, intimidation, discrimination, assault and sexual and gendered violence" and "b. The responsibility to uphold an atmosphere of civility, honesty, equity and respect for others, thereby valuing the inherent diversity within our community."

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is when a person or group experiences negative treatment because of a personal characteristic, or a person or group experiences different treatment than another person or group because of a personal characteristic.

A "personal characteristic" relates to a person's race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or physical or mental health disability.

The following four (4) actions may constitute discrimination:

  1. Discriminatory words or images
    Example: You are an international student mandated by the government to be quarantined on arrival at your university. Following the quarantine, you move into a dorm in residence. You are copied on an Instagram post sent by one of your dormmates that contains a meme that suggests students from certain countries are spreading COVID-19.
  2. Imposing burdens, obligations, or disadvantages
    Example: You are an employee at a university and are the sole caregiver for a child with a disability. Your child is at home all day because their daycare is closed because of COVID-19. You ask your supervisor if you can adjust your work hours to accommodate for your child's significant caregiving needs. Without asking any questions about your situation, your supervisor refuses to adjust your work hours.
  3. Withholding benefits, opportunities, or advantages
    Example: You are an international student studying at a university. When you go looking for housing in the city, landlords keep asking you where you are from and when you arrived. When you give these landlords your application, they all either tell you that the place has been rented or they never respond to your application. .
  4. Policies or practices that result in exclusion, restriction, or preference to persons or groups based on prohibited grounds
    Example: You are a student with a medical condition and are not able to wear a mask because of your medical condition. The policy at your university requires everyone to wear a mask in indoor public places because of COVID-19. You review the policy and notice that there are no exceptions for people with medical conditions or disabilities.

NOTE: the above policy will not be discriminatory if you can be accommodated by not being required to wear a mask in indoor public places.

What is social stigma?

Social stigma is a form of discrimination. The World Health Organization defines social stigma as follows:

Social stigma in the context of health is the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics and a specific disease. In an outbreak, this may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease.

What is the impact of social stigma?

According to the World Health Organization, social stigma can contribute to a situation where persons or groups isolate themselves and do not seek immediate medical attention. As a result, the COVID-19 virus is more, not less, likely to spread.

Social stigma may:

  • Drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination
  • Prevent people from seeking health care immediately
  • Discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours

Therefore, social stigma does not only affect the health of the person or group targeted by that stigmatization, but it also affects the health of the community as a whole.

What are the consequences if you participate in discrimination or social stigmatization?

Discrimination or social stigma is prohibited under Lakehead University's Harassment and Discrimination Policy.

Students who participate in discrimination or social stigmatization against any member of the Lakehead University community, including another student, a faculty member, or a staff member, will be subject to the Student Code of Conduct – Non-Academic. Violations of the Non-Academic Code could result in the implementation of sanctions (such as loss of privileges, behavioural probation, suspension, or, in extreme circumstances, expulsion).

Faculty members or staff members who participate in discrimination or social stigmatization against another member of the Lakehead University community will be subject to the Employee Code of Conduct or provisions of their collective agreements (where applicable).

What can you do if you experience discrimination or social stigma?

If you experience discrimination or social stigma at Lakehead University, contact the Office of Human Rights and Equity at:

Phone: (807) 346-7763

Where can you find more information?