Covid-19 stigma: Eroding the fabric of society
Stigma hurts no less than the coronavirus itself. It affects the emotional or mental health of people who have to face it, and make them more vulnerable
Earlier this year, reports said that the new coronavirus might have originated in China. Consequently, people of Far Eastern descent came under racist attacks in the West.
While "no Chinese allowed" signs appeared at restaurants, Chinese restaurants and shops were also deserted. As the virus spread across the world, so did the stigma associated with it.
With the absence of a sizable Chinese community in Bangladesh, the heat of the fear and anxiety about the disease was felt mainly by people who travelled internationally or domestically, healthcare professionals, people showing Covid- 19 like symptoms, and obviously, patients tested positive with the virus.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a document last March which warned that stigmatised groups may experience social avoidance or rejection, denials of healthcare, education, housing or employment, and physical violence.
In Bangladesh, rumours have played a role in exacerbating the above-mentioned impacts.
Rajib Parvez, a development professional, lives in Narayanganj for work. Ten days into the countrywide shutdown, Rajib's father, who lives in Kushtia, had a stroke and was hospitalised. Rajib and his other siblings rushed to Kushtia along with their respective families.
They spent a day by the side of their ailing father in the hospital. In the night, an official from the Kushtia Deputy Commissioner's office called and informed that Rajib's neighbours had been making complaints about him coming from Narayanganj, potentially carrying coronavirus.
After a while, police and administration enforced a lockdown on Rajib's home. However, they allowed two members of the family to visit the father in the hospital whenever needed. A day later, rumours surfaced that Rajib's father contracted coronavirus and that the paralysed, elderly man fled the hospital. Someone called the police again, and the police paid a visit only to find it false.
Rajib's father was released from the hospital three days later. But the family's sufferings did not come to an end here. Neighbours kept coming to Rajib's mother to enquire about what they just heard; that Rajib had a fever now, and that he was infected with the coronavirus.
The night after, Rajib's father developed a condition. His catheter had some issues and it was giving him unbearable pain. His family called a nurse who lived nearby. But the nurse wouldn't come. The elderly man had to endure the agony till the next morning when the catheter could be removed.
"My father is still unwell. We only pray that nothing worse happens to him at this moment. Not until this pandemic is over," Rajib vented his frustration.
Rajib Parvez has nothing against the precautionary quarantine imposed by the administration. But the rumours, social shaming and stigma- these are something that Rajib will never be able to forget.
The 14-day quarantine is now over. "I want to cry my lungs out, so everyone can hear me loud and clear- my father and I are not corona-infected," writes an angered Rajib on his Facebook page.
Another elderly man from Jhalkathi, Abdul Mannan Howlader, 70, went through a similar experience. He and his wife travelled to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah in last December. Four months later in April, police came to enforce a lockdown after being falsely tipped off that they had travelled from Italy.
Meanwhile, a female health worker in Gopalganj was forcefully quarantined in a tiny makeshift hut 400 meters away from her home. The young woman used to work in a private hospital in the capital.
As the hospital was closed due to the pandemic, she returned home. Followers of a local political leader confined her in the utterly unsafe thatched hut beside a dried-up pond. After spending seven days in the hut, the woman was eventually rescued by the police as a picture went viral on social media.
The stigma is affecting the patients, doctors, and even the dead. Many patients with fever or cough were denied treatment at hospitals, the doctors were told by house owners to leave, and in Khilgaon, people protested the decision to bury the dead bodies tested positive with coronavirus at Khilgaon-Taltola graveyard.
While building hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients should be considered a welcome move, a political leader in Tejgaon organised a protest to stop constructing a dedicated hospital for corona patients.
In Narayanganj, after 18 members of a medical officer's family had contracted coronavirus, local people pelted brickbats at the house and tried to drive them away from the area.
While many people in the country have come out to help the destitute with money and food amid the shutdown, many have shown that the fear of corona has the power to erode the fabric of a society where jumping in another man's danger was a norm.
Stigma hurts no less than the coronavirus itself. It affects the emotional or mental health of people who have to face it and make them more vulnerable.
Stopping stigma is an essential part of the battle against the virus. Law-enforcement agencies in many western countries said they were prioritising investigations of hate crimes related to Covid-19.
The struggle of our own law-enforcers is two faceted. While they are battling to ensure physical distancing among carefree people, they also need to take action to repel the stigma that has been associated with the diseases.
Of course, the police alone cannot do that. All of the government machinery, the media, and all quarters of the society should join hands to fight the stigma.
Already, a number of groups have sprung up who have overcome the fear and engaged themselves to bury or cremate the dead.
A ward councillor in Narayanganj named Maksudul Alam Khandaker, and an organisation in Dhaka called the Markazul Islami have made the headlines with their selfless acts.
It is the likes of Maksudul and Markazul Islami people who help to hold our heads high amid all the social-shaming and stigma. Coronavirus has taken lives, and it may continue doing so for a while, but our society has to stand up to its own evil at any cost.