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COVID-19: Dealing with fear and stigma

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Covid-19

By Chidirim Ndeche

WHAT would you do if you woke up in the morning and found out you had recently come in contact with someone who tested positive for the dreaded COVID-19?

What if, even after you’ve successfully kept this information to yourself, a couple of days down the line, you start to experience some symptoms associated with the disease?

What would be your next line of action and how would you handle it? Would you visit a nearby market to buy as much ginger and garlic as you can find? Would you stay indoors and pray that the cup passes over you?

Would you call 08000CORONA to get yourself tested for the disease? Is your heart beating heavily right now, just weighing all the possibilities and what they could mean for you and your family?

While people’s reactions to a pandemic are difficult to predict, it is no news that the attitude to this pandemic ranges from a crippling fear to complete denial that the virus exists.

The response so far: Only a few months after the discovery of the novel coronavirus, it exploded into a major pandemic, spread to 216 countries around the world and sent billions of people into mandatory or voluntary confinement.

In those months, the world watched as religious centres and schools closed down and economies came to a halt. Many misconceptions arose, and reputable health institutions struggled to debunk the myths and conspiracies associated with the virus.

But while it was essential to encourage the practices that would contain the spread of the virus, it became more difficult to deduce what was reliable and safe.

On March 18, Nigerian polling service NOIPolls announced that 26 percent of Nigerians were in doubt about the existence of the disease. While some claimed that their religion protected them from contracting COVID-19, others believed their strong genes, alcohol and the hot climate were the antidotes to the deadly virus.

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This led to people not protecting themselves and others effectively, as advised by the authorities, thus putting their immediate community and health workers at risk.

Causality in COVID: Among health workers, fear of infection and lack of protection are some of the factors militating against the effective dispensation of their jobs. Improvement in workplace safety and the welfare of healthcare workers will boost their willingness to effectively carry out their duties in the face of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, many patients fail to disclose their infections or underlying health conditions when they go to hospitals for treatment for other health conditions.

This largely stems from the fact that news on the COVID-19 disease, which continues to evolve, is characterised by extreme uncertainty. Much about the coronavirus remains unclear, including the health complications it may cause to the human body, its spread, and whether antibodies can deliver long-lasting immunity. This reflects in the insufficient or contradictory data and statistical shortcomings.

Misinformation is not new to Nigeria. At the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, false news swirled around the country, leading to two deaths. This pattern reemerged during the COVID-19 outbreak. Lagos health officials reported news of people overdosing on Chloroquine after a reputable personality opined that the drug could treat the coronavirus.

Misinformation is, perhaps, the major reason why many fear to report to authorities when they suspect they have contracted the virus. This reluctance to be tested for COVID-19 could be for a variety of reasons.

People might want to avoid the consequences of a positive result, and so some live in denial that the disease exists. Those who fear that they have contracted it fail to get tested because of the waiting list in testing centres and fear of the perceived pain and discomfort of the test procedure itself.

These people, in turn, put their families and other members of the community at risk of contracting the disease. Some feared they may be stigmatised by people around them even after they have been cured of the virus.

The way forward: There are many negative effects caused by the coronavirus, including stigmatisation and discrimination of people affected by the outbreak which in turn hampers response efforts. Stigma can drive people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination. It can also prevent them from seeking medical care immediately and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours.

To address these issues and prevent further transmission of the communicable disease, an environment needs to be created in which the disease and its impact can be discussed and addressed openly, honestly and effectively.

The community also needs to work together to build trust in reliable health services, understand the disease, empathise with those affected, and adopt practical and effective measures to protect its members. The way we communicate about COVID-19 is critical in combating the disease and avoiding further fuelling of harmful stereotypes.

The Lagos State Government aims to ensure the protection of all its citizens, curtail the spread of the disease and preserve the healthcare system.

Knowing the extent to which fear, denial and discrimination can hamper the efforts of its public health institutions in the fight to curtail the spread of the disease, the state has provided psychological care services through its COVID-19 call centres and outreach programmes to assist Lagosians dealing with the psychological issues that come with the disease and clarify general misunderstandings associated with the pandemic.

Ndeche, a public health consultant, wrote from Lagos

VANGUARD

 

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