The Covid stigma is a bigger malaise than the disease itself

Each day hundreds of people all across India are ostracised by their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances, even if they are suspected of harbouring the dreaded coronavirus.

 |  4-minute read |   22-06-2020
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Rupam (name changed) is 25 years old and has insulin-dependent diabetes. He looks after his chronic disease with utmost caution in spite of holding a busy corporate job. A few days ago, he came down with a sore throat and was advised to take a Covid test. The test results were positive and Rupam had Covid-19. He consulted his doctor, who, after examining him and getting some tests done, advised him to stay in isolation at home in his own apartment.

He returned to his apartment complex in a plush Salt Lake neighbourhood in Kolkata to find his neighbours of many years up in arms about his illness. The secretary of the Residents’ Association ordered him to leave immediately and not infect others with his “disgusting” disease. No amount of explanations and corroborations of the advice by the doctor would dissuade the neighbours, some of whom addressed Rupam as a “nongra bodmash” (dirty scoundrel).

Rupam was forced to check-in into to a nearby corporate hospital at a considerable cost and was allowed back by his neighbours ten days later, after he showed them his Covid-negative certificate. Throughout the entire course of the illness, he had been completely asymptomatic. The agony that Rupam and his family endured was totally unnecessary as the government guidelines clearly legislate for home-isolation whenever possible, in people who are fairly asymptomatic. This is supposed to be done after medical assessment and certification. It is completely safe and risk-free.

main_covid-stigma_062220123345.jpgEach day, hundreds of people all across India are ostracised by their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances, even if they are suspected of harbouring the dreaded coronavirus. (Representative photo: Reuters)

Rupam is not unique in any way. Each day, hundreds of people all across India are ostracised by their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances, even if they are suspected of harbouring the dreaded coronavirus. In many instances, healthcare workers who have literally put their lives on the line for the nation have been prevented from entering their own homes by unsympathetic landlords and neighbours alike.

Though Covid is infectious, 80 to 90 out of every 100 people infected will not even realise that they have had an infection. Even if they do, it will be a mild flu-like illness and chances of death or severe illness is very low. But, there is a strong potential for the contagion to spread rapidly and infect many people at the same time, potentially inflicting a logistical nightmare for healthcare systems across the world. This is what necessitated the lockdown — not only in India, but across the world. At no time was there any intention of the authorities or governments to generate a mass panic — a fear of death and disease among the populace.

Prevention by means of social distancing, wearing masks and hand-washing is definitely recommended and will prevent infection in most instances. But no authority in this world has recommended ostracisation and stigmatisation of the “sick”.

The stigmatisation of the disease has its roots in ancient times when patients suffering from leprosy were socially ostracised and literally left to die. In spite of significant social, economic and scientific changes that have evolved through centuries, it appears certain base human instincts have not improved. The stigmatisation of the “ill” remains as ingloriously present amongst the human race today as it was thousands of years ago.

This current crisis related to Covid-19 may well have been catalysed by the hyperbolic media repeatedly and vehemently highlighting the rising number of cases or the constant flooding of misinformation through WhatsApp University or in all likelihood, a combination of both. Nonetheless, the stigma associated with Covid ramifies into a huge source of inconvenience and agony for a significant number of people.

Research across the globe has convincingly demonstrated that stigmatisation due to infectious diseases leads to adverse outcomes both for the person stigmatised as well as the society as a whole. For these reasons, enlightened public health interventions have sought to neutralise stigma even as they manage to care for patients, patient families, and the communities to which the afflicted belong.

Non-pharmacological methods to prevent disease spread have proven to be largely effective, with India showing a drop in active cases of Covid-19 and a low death rate. In addition, education and strict implementation of guidelines banning social ostracisation and stigmatisation of those affected or likely to be affected will definitely improve the health outcomes in Covid for Indians.

In that way, many like Rupam will be spared the ignominy of being turned out of their own homes.

Also Read: Covid-19 will find a cure. Stigma will not

Writer

Dr Binayak Sinha Dr Binayak Sinha @binayaksinha1

The writer is an endocrinologist based in Kolkata.

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