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Health & Fitness

Timely and accurate data can reduce Covid stigma

Public health officers during a recent burial ceremony of a Covid-19 victim
Public health officers during a recent burial ceremony of a Covid-19 victim. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG 

Q. “I run a small firm that specialises in community outreach in education. With the partial re-opening of the economy, we intend to resume operations in several upcountry locations though my officers report that stigma about the Covid-19 pandemic has limited their interaction with several communities. How can we best approach the communities to end the stigma?”

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You have asked at least three questions in one. The first relates to Covid-19 as a disease, the next is about stigma and its nature and origins, and the third is about the social consequences of stigma, in your case about the opening of schools.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 is truly a novel condition in the sense that for the first time in human history, all men and women are united in the fear of the consequences of the virus.

No man, woman or nation of whatever standing can claim immunity of any sort. Indeed, the fact that from royalty (Prince of Wales), the British Prime Minister, all the way to the slum dwellers of Brazil and Kenya, the fear is the same and the possibility of infection is the same. Fathers, mothers and children fear for one another all the time and none can give the traditional comfort that is so precious in normal times.

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The global economy is rapidly shrinking and no country can offer help or promise help to the other. Traditional (if often reluctant) donors such as the US and Europe are the most affected and are scrambling for the most basic of equipment and other resources in competition with their normal recipients of aid. It is possibly true to say that this pandemic, has turned the world on its head and all are in want. Nothing in the world seems to make sense any more.

To make a senseless world even worse, one is required to do certain things to keep safe. Almost all of them create more, not less emotional tension.

Keep away from your loved ones is one of the ways you show love for our elderly parents. Do not go to places of worship if you want to keep yourself and others safe! In normal times, it is the places of worship that many go for spiritual comfort. Do not hug or come close to those you love as (a sign of affection) we are told. We have always shown affection by hugging. These messages confuse and at times anger people

When they die, do not give loved ones the dignity due to the dead. Instead, run and keep away from them to stay alive. All these things further confuse the normal mind and in some ways drive stigma. This is itself driven by a lack of knowledge. In this case, stigma is a mark of disapproval or discrimination directed at persons who have been diagnosed or are thought to have come into contact with a person who might have Covid-19.

In your case, the officers planning to open schools face the exclusion that is so typical as a consequence of stigma. The exclusion is based on only one characteristic, the possibility of having an infectious condition. Traditionally, the reality is that mental illness has had the greatest stigma associated with it. Covid-19 is the new object of stigma.

The consequences of stigma include shame and social exclusion, sadly by those who should know better including the Church, and the family. To complicate things further, there are instances when a person stigmatises themselves, for example believing that their race, tribe or religion is in some way inferior to others.

Truth and timely information are the most important tools of dealing with stigma, whether it is regarding you opening schools in this Covid-19 era or fighting for the rights of marginalised groups.

It is, for example true, that more than 80 per cent of the people who test positive for Covid-19 will not have any symptoms. It is also true that even those who have symptoms only a few will go to the hospital. It is also true that we are not helpless bystanders because there are things we can do to stay safe.

We fear and stigmatise at least in part because of the lack of knowledge. It might be helpful for your teams to try and get some understanding of the fear of the people they seek to educate, and it might be wise to start by educating the people on the nature of the pandemic. There are many lessons to be learnt from HIV/Aids as well as the more recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Both were fought to a large extent by extensive and deliberate education of communities on how to keep safe. I would suggest that you arm yourself with accurate and timely information on how the pandemic affects the people and equally importantly how the communities you plan to work with can be proactive in their safety as they enjoy the benefits of education.

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