Tackle Covid-19 stigma

“Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear and anger, instead of focusing on the disease that causes the problems. Stigma can make people hide symptoms,” said coast chief social worker, Audrey Gaes.

15 October 2020 | Health

JANA-MARI SMITH

WINDHOEK



With the normalisation of Covid-19 over the past year, stigmatisation has waned, but experts warn that confronting fear-based discrimination must remain a priority and requires precise messaging.

“Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstances,” the chief social worker at the coast, Audrey Gaes, said during a presentation last month.

The Erongo Region and its residents became a prime target of Covid-19 stigmatisation when Walvis Bay became the first Namibian epicentre of the pandemic earlier this year.

“We had colleagues who refused to take in patients from Walvis Bay, irrespective of their Covid status,” says Dr Kwasi Yeboah, a Walvis Bay surgeon.

Within the community itself, stigmatisation of the sick or those in close contact with them erupted.

“In our hospital, the patients who recovered and went home sometimes experienced problems where friends and relatives avoided them afterwards,” Yeboah says.

Stigmatisation arises from both fear and worry about the long-term effects, including the economic repercussions for businesses that might come into contact with Covid-19-positive persons.



Ripple effects

Gaes warns that stigmatisation can lead to a variety of negative ripple effects.

“Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear and anger, instead of focusing on the disease that causes the problems. Stigma can make people hide symptoms.”

A brief by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) warns that stigma has the power to destabilise communities and isolate groups of people.

This reduces testing and seeking medical help when needed, and can in turn increase infection and death rates.

Predictable

Among those most at risk of being stigmatised are frontline workers, whose occupation increases their risk of infection.

These include health workers and truck drivers. Yeboah explains that stigmatisation amidst a new disease outbreak is not unique to Covid-19. “It's normal.

If we look back at history, it's always like that. People discriminate. It's not new to Covid.”

Stigma is no stranger to coastal journalist Ester Mbathera, who wrote poignantly of the impact on her family when a close family member contracted Aids 20 years ago.

“When it came to stigma, the ignorance of the community really hurt. You are being rejected by your own community for something you didn't do. Even in church you could sense it, in a place that was supposed to be a refuge.”

She says she still feels the impact of the shunning she experienced.

“I became a loner. I sensed that the warmth and openness I was used to, wasn't there anymore,” she says.



Words matter

“Stigma arises from how information is disseminated. If we put out information on a contagious or life-threatening disease, it has to be done carefully,” Mbathera says.

Yeboah adds that at the beginning of the Covid outbreak, a lot of unverified and untrue information did the rounds.

“People were talking about things they didn't understand, and that can mislead people. If information is not accurate, people become unsure.”

Since then, improved knowledge of the virus has led to a steady decrease in stigma and discrimination, Yeboah says.

“It's not a trend that has stayed the same. A lot has happened in the last few months, and people are much better informed.”

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