Health experts denounce growing Covid-19 stigma

The first resident of Khayelitsha township to test positive had to leave her home due to community hostility. Image: Esa Alexander
In the battle to defeat Covid-19, a young Khayelitsha mother and her family have an unwelcome secondary fight on their hands — against the stigma growing around people infected with the virus.

After the 25-year-old tested positive eight days ago, becoming the first coronavirus victim in Cape Town’s largest township, her landlady asked her to leave. Then a flood of hateful social media posts and voice notes began circulating.

The mother of one had been treated like “someone with leprosy”, said a family spokesperson. “After she informed the landlady about the outcome of her test, a department of health vehicle came to pick them up on Sunday. Neighbours stood outside watching. It was a spectacle. The landlady showed uneasiness. She wanted her out of her premises.”

Rumours that the young mother had been paid “to spread the virus” proliferated after she and her child were taken into isolation.

“It is worse than the stigma that was attached to HIV/Aids,” said the family spokesperson. “I am praying for her safety as there is so much anger out there.”

Infectious disease experts called for calm and compassion this week, arguing that stigmatising Covid-19 could fuel the spread of the virus because victims would do their best to conceal their condition.

Linda-Gail Bekker, head of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town, warned that excluding people based on their illness could harm treatment programmes, as it did with HIV/Aids.

“Stigma drives people underground, affects their mental wellbeing and makes our efforts to reach, test and treat everyone so much harder,” said Bekker. “This is an airborne disease like colds and flu. We don’t blame people who have these diseases, we normally feel sorry for them.”

Treatment Action Campaign chair Sibongile Tshabalala said there was an impression that Covid-19 only affects people who have travelled outside the country. “I see the ignorance every day in the township,” she said.

Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola, director of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management at Stellenbosch University, said SA “cannot afford another wave of stigma”.

She added: “One of the biggest reasons people stop or refuse to take antiretroviral treatment is stigma. Sadly, Covid-19 will most likely affect more people who have TB and HIV, including those who are not on treatment or do not know their status.

“Covid-19 stigma will result in setbacks in the work that we have done to combat HIV/TB stigma.”

Leigh-Ann Snyman, patient-support manager with Doctors Without Borders, called for compassion instead of shaming for those infected with Covid-19.

“There certainly is a risk of people infected with Covid-19 being stigmatised, not only in their communities but in health care facilities. Stigma is often found where fear exists. Stigma also thrives where misinformation runs unchecked.”

“It is crucial that the blaming of patients who bear no fault at all be clearly and strongly denounced, and that a culture of compassion is encouraged instead.”

While HIV stigma was driven mainly by the slow government response in SA, Snyman said the response to Covid-19 had been extraordinarily swift. “We hope that this will help massively to mitigate Covid-19 stigma.”

It’s a painful issue for a KwaZulu-Natal woman who buried her sister, a teacher from Isipingo, at a family homestead on Friday.

Despite five relatives testing negative for Covid-19, they were being shunned, said the woman. “Where we stay, even where we work, people are scared because it is a new virus and people don’t understand it, people are afraid of us.

“Because of the way people reacted to this we feel that we have been isolated even by our community.”


– Additional reporting by Zimasa Matiwane


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