‘No to stigmatising COVID-19 patients and survivors’

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By Elizabeth Sitotombe

THE fear of contracting COVID-19 is very strong among Zimbabweans. 

As the second wave wreaks pain and suffering among the populace, COVID-19 has left another frightening byproduct in the form of stigma.

Many stories are emerging of people who, after recovery from the virus, have returned to work only to find that they are no longer welcome and, in the event that they still have their jobs, find themselves being treated as outcasts.

There are many reasons COVID-19 has resulted in there being a lot of stigma and discrimination.

There has been a lot of bad publicity and ‘alarming news’ on the virus that has been spread on social media platforms in particular.

When the pandemic first broke out, the people who suffered the most from discrimination were Asians who were targeted for allegedly causing the pandemic.

The virus soon spread across many borders and Zimbabwe was no exception. 

Stigma and discrimination continues unabated. 

One example is that of Saul Sakudya.

The Ruwa-based businessman was third to test positive for coronavirus in the country and three of his family members also ended up getting the virus after they came in contact with him. 

He was also the first patient to recover from COVID-19.

Although he was given the all clear after two tests, friends and relatives would not visit or talk to him, even from a distance, for a long time.

“Some people somehow think I still have residue of the virus,” he is on record saying.

“I heard one person referring to my road as ‘Corona Road’ and some people now avoid the road altogether (sic). 

“It hurts, but I have to be mature and accept it.”

Pundits contend that if people treat COVID-19 patients with fear, those who have been exposed may refuse to come forward and can spread the disease to others in silence.

They may suspect they have the virus, but will avoid getting tested altogether lest the result comes back positive.

Stigma can drive people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination at a time when people should be supporting one another to prevent and recover from the pandemic

It can prevent people from seeking health care immediately, as some of the patients will only, ‘come out’ when they start experiencing shortness of breath, usually leading to a premature death.

It can also discourage them from adopting healthy behaviour lest they are singled out as such.

Another Ruwa-based 28-year-old Tendai had this to say: “I work at a certain company in the CBD and I was going to work like most essential workers, doing everything right, that is wearing my mask, sanitising and maintaining social/physical distancing. 

“I was not using public transport, but this disease is something else because I do not even know how I caught it. 

“I just woke up one day feeling really bad. 

“I felt sick and so tired it felt as though someone was sitting on my shoulders like literally (sic). 

“I just wanted to sleep and had no cough or flue symptoms, so I just assumed it was one of those things that would pass with a day’s rest.  

“But I did not get any better so I made the mistake of telling a friend that l suspected that l had COVID-19 and the rest was history.  

“I started receiving calls from people enquiring whether it was true or not and by the time I got tested and got my results everyone had already started shunning me.

“Thankfully, all those who had been around me tested negative because I was strict with myself when it came to masking up and sanitising. To this day, I wonder how I contracted it.

“It was awkward at work after I recovered. 

“My bosses put off my returning to work until they really had no choice, but fellow workers would not come near me.

“Same with some of my family  members; even going to the local tuck-shop became an ordeal because people would be whispering and pointing fingers at me; they still do.

“I have felt so lonely and depressed.”

One social media user sharing an experience with COVID-19 wrote: “It’s very important to trace your contacts so they test and to disclose your status, but however I regret doing so because I’m finding clients and people ask if I’m safe to interact with nyangwe ndabuda muquarantine (even though I’m no longer in isolation), and note you can still test positive but after 10-to-14 days you can’t spread the disease but iiiii I regret disclosing zvangu ( l regret disclosing my status a lot).”

Some may ask: How can stigma from COVID-19 be prevented?

Pundits contend that we all need to be considerate when communicating on social media and other platforms we should be supportive of COVID-19 patients.

Many Government officials have had to fight off their abusers on social media after some users with their own political agendas, disclosed fake COVID-19 results, taunting and celebrating their supposed illness.

Using criminalising or dehumanising terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human.

Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, initially recorded low numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, but has recently experienced a spike in both cases and deaths.

Indeed COVID-19 does not select who to affect, be it rich or poor.

It is not racially selective and affects those with or without any underlying conditions. 

As such, we should look after each other in the appropriate manner.

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