Learning from our past mistakes: the mental health burden of two pandemics

depressed 2020

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Beatričė Vileišytė, a 4th-year medicine student at Vilnius University in Vilnius, Lithuania. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Due to my experience with sexual and reproductive health and rights, a few months back the first word I would have associated with the term ‘pandemic’ would have been AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Although entirely different in its pathology and clinical manifestation, COVID-19 is caused by a virus (the Novel Coronavirus), just like AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which has a pandemic of its own with around 25 million deaths since its’ first reported cases in 1981. The reason I mention AIDS is that just like the Novel Coronavirus, both of these pandemics came with its own stigma, which was detrimental to many communities around the world.

Some of us struggle with various mental health issues caused by lockdowns of various levels, 24/7 click-bait news cycles and the uncertainty of future. But to me, there is a whole other disturbing side to this – the blatant xenophobia towards Asian communities around the world. Take a look at the strikingly long Wikipedia article titled ‘List of Incidents of Xenophobia and Racism Related to the 2019–20 Coronavirus Pandemic’ – Europe is no exception here.

My message here today is the well-known phrase of ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. In the 1980s, due to the fact that the first cases of HIV were attributed to men who have had sex with men, people from the LGBTQIA+ and other affected communities faced appalling stigmatisation, which lead to years of stereotyping, profiling, separation and discrimination, which no doubt has had a tremendously destructive effect on the mental health of those affected by it.

That is why today I wanted to compare the two pandemics in this rather painful way, as it seems as though the world has not learnt from the misery it has caused to so many individuals. But what can be done by all of us? I do believe that change starts from each individual, so we must do our part to lessen the burden towards communities who suffer great stigmatisation nowadays.

The first step would be to do your best to support your local communities that might be experiencing xenophobia or racism – if safe, offer your volunteering, mental health services or financial help to those who might be affected by this. The second step would be to cleanse your and others’ prejudice – a certain powerful political figure called this the ‘Chinese’ virus – this is unacceptable and should be deeply discouraged in any conversation – local, national or global.

Thirdly, do your part to work on this topic within your own community too – each individual has an impact on those around him, so try to speak with everyone who is willing to listen so that the communities deeply affected by the stigma caused by the Novel Coronavirus do not have to suffer for decades to come, just as the marginalized groups of AIDS pandemic had to.

About the author

Beatričė Vileišytė is a 4th year medicine student at Vilnius University in Vilnius, Lithuania and currently working as the Acting National Officer for the Standing Committee on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) including HIV & AIDS in the Lithuanian Medical Students Association (LiMSA).


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  1. Harold A Maio Maio says:

    That we continue to teach “stigmas” suggests we are not able to learn from history.


  1. […] Learning from our past mistakes: the mental health burden of two pandemics  The European Sting […]

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