Stigma, fear linked to COVID-19 spike

Victims recount testing positive for coronavirus

ON THE morning of June 20, 2020, James Chola woke up with a headache and in no time, he developed flu that led to nasal congestion.
In the evening of the same day, so many things had gone wrong in his body-he was feeling fatigued and weak; then came strange chest pains and a mild dry cough.
His ailment was fast progressing. Before he retired to bed, Mr Chola realised that he had lost his sense of smell and taste too. It was at that point that a thought crossed his mind that his ailment could be COVID-19- related. However, he quickly brushed that thought aside.
“I was not convinced at first. I thought it was a common cough or flu but the symptoms were similar to those of COVID-19,” he said.
Mr Chola, 47, was somewhat in denial of his condition and for six days, he was just at home, although coronavirus symptoms persisted.
It was on June 26 that he took the bold step of visiting the University Teaching Hospitals (UTH) for a COVID-19 test which came out positive.
After this, he was quarantined at his house where he was isolated from his family members.
“I had my own room in order to protect other family members from contracting the virus. I had one family member who would bring food for me and other daily needs. He was always wearing a mask and gloves,” he shared.
While Mr Chola was in quarantine, health personnel used to phone him daily to find out how he was doing. Apart from that, there was a team of inspectors that would visit his home to check if he was adhering to COVID-19 health guidelines.
After 22 days of self-quarantine, he was tested for COVID-19 and the results came out negative. He was advised to keep isolating himself until the test was repeated after a week. A week later, Mr Chola was re-tested and declared COVID-19 free.
During the 29 days that he was confined to his room, one thing that kept him in high spirits was the desire to go back to work and reunite with family and friends.
However, he laments that after recovering fully, some neighbours, co-workers and relatives were shunning him.
“Since I reported back for work, my colleagues no longer socialise or interact with me, most of them would just pretend not to see me. A work environment is a place where we mostly spend time but for me, it has been a challenge because everyone seem a distance away,” Mr Chola lamented.
Tandwa Mpundu said the coronavirus stigma is not limited to victims of the disease but their relatives too.
Mrs Mpundu’s husband Felix who recently recovered from COVID-19, got sick during a business trip to Mansa.
“I was in Lusaka when he called me that he was not feeling well and was admitted to Mansa General Hospital. I travelled to Mansa to see him and he was evacuated to Levy Mwanawasa Teaching Hospital in Lusaka where he was tested and found positive. I was also tested and I tested negative,” Mrs Mpundu, a mother of three said.
When she leant that her husband had tested positive to COVID-19, she alerted relatives and friends, to her amazement, she was criticised for the stance she had taken.
Mr Mpundu was isolated and treated at Levy Mwanawasa Teaching Hospital for 21 days.
On July 25, Mrs Mpundu took to social media to celebrate the full recovery of her husband but what shocked her were the negative reactions from friends.
“After my husband was discharged I posted a testimony on my Facebook page, I was thanking God for healing him. I did not know my post would go viral; some people confronted me, asking me to pull it down because it could ruin our reputation. I feel that is stigma itself,” she said.
“COVID-19 does not choose. If presidents can get infected, who are you? We need to fight this stigma.”
Ruth Zulu, 44, another COVID-19 survivor of Chaisa in Lusaka, contracted the disease from her boss who had travelled to Pakistan on a business trip.
Ms Zulu, a domestic worker, said she did not exhibit any symptoms when the test was conducted but was found positive. She was then admitted to Levy Mwanawasa Teaching Hospital on March 28, because at the time, all asymptomatic patients were being isolated in healthcare facilities.
Her four children were tested too, but they all came out negative.
But during the 20 days that Ms Zulu spent in a health facility, her children were being stigmatised by neighbours in Chaisa.
“While in quarantine, I use to call my children to check on them, but their compliant was always about how people were shunning them. I felt bad because the people who did that, are close to us,” she explained.
Ms Zulu said after 20 days of isolation and receiving medication at the facility, she fully recovered and was discharged. When she arrived home, her neighbours wanted nothing to do with her entire household.
“My children could not even step outside the house for fear of being shunned. It got to a point where we were scared of going to the nearby shops to buy something.” Ms Zulu, a mother of four lamented.
A psychotherapist at Thrive Wellness Hub, Benjamin Samusiko condemns the coronavirus-related stigma, saying it has potential to derail the fight against the global pandemic.
“Stigma tortures the mind and it affects the mental health of someone. When you discriminate people, they start feeling unloved and it leads to depression.
Mr Samusiko has observed that patients who are given emotional support by friends and relatives tend to heal faster than those that are stigmatised.
“If we are there for each other, cases will be slowly dropping. For example, if you know a neighbour or relative infected or affected by COVID-19, show them support by calling them, and if they are declared negative, welcome them with love,” he said
Medical Association of Zambia president Samson Chisele said stigma against people infected or affected by COVID-19 could have contributed to the increasing number of cases and deaths because patients were shunning healthcare facilities.
Dr Chisele explained that when people stigmatise COVID-19 infected or affected people, it becomes a challenge for the sick to come out and be tested. This also means that contact tracing of possible positive cases in in the communities is compromised.
“People shun tests that is why we have a lot of deaths recorded under brought in dead BID. Many people do not want their illness to be COVID-19 related due to stigma in our society,” he said.
Dr Chisele noted with sadness that victims of the disease as well as their caregivers, family and friends were also being stigmatised in the communities despite being free of the coronavirus.
“When someone is discharged, it means there are fine, they cannot infect anyone,” Dr Chisele said.
Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya commends people who are declaring their COVID-19-positive status despite the social stigma associated with the disease. Dr Chilufya describes such people as responsible citizens who want to protect the people they had come in contact with.
“This is a disease that anyone of us is capable of getting, everyone is at risk, so stigma must be frowned upon. There is no need to stigmatise those who have COVID-19. Stigma is reversing the gains made,” the minister said.

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