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Laws to Fight COVID Stigma

“I call it COVID shaming… It’s a real thing that happens. It happened to me for weeks after my healing.

The Rev. Shane Harris, president of the People’s Alliance for Justice

According to the CDC, we must fight stigma during this COVID pandemic—against people who have, or have recovered from COVID, and against ethnic groups wrongly blamed for or seen as carriers of the virus. Asian and Asian-American people, historically marginalized as “foreign,” were falsely associated with the “Chinese virus” from the start.[1]  African-American and Black people, too, are at higher risk of COVID stigma, and Latinx communities have similar experiences.  And anyone who had COVID may be stigmatized.

As the CDC reminds us, fighting this stigma is a public health imperative—as well as a legal and moral obligation. Stigma can lead to discrimination, such as:

  • Furlough or dismissal at work
  • Denial of healthcare, housing, transportation, or access to public spaces
  • Verbal or physical abuse

Laws Prohibiting COVID Discrimination

Three categories of law prohibit this kind of discrimination:

1. Disability Discrimination Laws

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability at work and in public accommodations and services; the federal Fair Housing Act similarly prohibits disability discrimination in housing.  This means someone who has, has a record of, or who is regarded as having COVID has legal protections against discrimination.  Local laws may provide even broader protection.  As I wrote previously, COVID may be a protected “disability” under these disability nondiscrimination laws.

2. Employment Leave Laws

Both the federal government and many states passed laws specifically protecting workers who need leave because of COVID or quarantine, like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or New York’s Quarantine Leave Law.  And there were already employment leave requirements on the books, like the Family and Medical Leave Act and New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law.  The technicalities of these laws get very complicated very fast; some resources with more information are listed below. 

Still, generally, these laws require employers to give time off, sometimes with pay.  They also make it illegal to retaliate against an employee who took time off for COVID or quarantining. 

3. Race Discrimination Laws

As noted, some racial or ethnic groups have been targeted because they are wrongly seen as causing or carrying COVID.  This type of discrimination is prohibited by employment discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  There are also protections—similar to the ADA—against such discrimination in public accommodations, healthcare, housing, and more.

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Photo by Theo Goodell,


[1] See also, e.g., Ng, Edmond, The Pandemic of Hate Is Giving COVID-19 a Helping Hand, Am. J. Tropical Med. and Hygiene 1158-59 (2020); Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr., Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2020), at