MY people are destroyed because of lack of knowledge!
This Biblical adage could aptly describe the retrogressive hate and stigma a Bulawayo health care worker who contracted the deadly Coronavirus while on duty is being subjected to.
At a time the whole world is celebrating the sacrifices of health care workers who are in the frontline fighting the virus, Zimbabweans have reduced the health worker and a family to the most loathed and stigmatised lot in Bulawayo.
Popularly known as case 16, the health worker who still prefers to be anonymous months after she recovered, says it will take decades for her family to get over the hate and shame they were subjected to by locals.
When the first cases were reported in Zimbabwe, many people thought then that being infected with the virus meant automatic death hence the fear to associate with those infected.
Some even went to the extent of calling for the relocation of infected individuals and their families. What is comforting is that as people got to know more about the virus, it became clear that with adherence to health measures like self-isolation, social distancing and regular sanitisations, infected people do not pose a danger to others.
Unbeknown to members of the public who were persecuting case 16 on social media is that she burnt most of her property and prepared for death a few days after news about her testing positive went viral.
She was labelled the ‘deliberate spreader of Covid-19’ and she is still struggling to come to terms with the social, spiritual and even economic effects of the treatment she got.
Neighbours spread hate-filled messages about how she was careless and wanted to kill everyone by carelessly infecting them with the deadly virus that has infected about 29 million people worldwide and killed nearly 926 000 this year.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed that the Covid-19 outbreak has provoked social stigma and discriminatory behaviours against people perceived to have been in contact with the virus.
In a special paper on stigma around Covid-19, WHO said the discrimination stems from three overlapping factors. “First, it is a disease that’s new and for which there are still many unknowns. Second, we are often afraid of the unknown, and third, it is easy to associate that fear with others.”
Nurses who are among the Covid-19 frontline workers have also reportedly faced stigmatisation and discrimination across the country, a development that has seen some of them being evicted from their lodgings as landlords and fellow tenants fear that they are carriers of the virus.
In some instances, nurses are shunned by family and friends and face discrimination when using public transport and when they are shopping at supermarkets.
Health workers have been greatly exposed to Covid-19 and by the end of last month, statistics indicated more than 400 had been infected countrywide.
On April 7, Ian Hyslop succumbed to Covid-19 being the first victim in Bulawayo. Then the virus was still alien to many as it was considered a disease from China.
Case 16 had faithfully offered health care services to the late Hyslop who was admitted to the hospital where she was working, ignorant of his status. The interaction with the patient was at most two hours and she was infected.
Days later she tested positive and discovered that the Covid-19 had spread to her daughter, two grandchildren and one tenant’s child who was under her care.
They have been referred to as Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 case#16, #19, #20, #21 and #22.
The backlash she received after her status, name, address, cell phone number was publicised is a classic example of how careless handling of Covid-19 cases can result in stigma and more suffering for the infected and the affected.
It could be the reason why despite recording 5 675 recoveries to date in Zimbabwe, only a handful are willing to come out and share their experiences.
Speaking out during a women’s round table Covid-19 Media training recently, Case 16’s daughter who also prefers to be called Case 21, said the stigma against them was so deep-rooted, it has become the cause of the family’s recent misfortunes.
Although she is training to be a teacher at one of the local colleges, she says the stigma suffered has stripped her of confidence and self-worth as a woman, teacher and a human being.
“I am case 21 whose mother contracted Covid-19 while doing her duties at a hospital in Bulawayo. I am still not comfortable speaking out because I am afraid of suffering more although all of us have recovered from Covid-19,” she says.
“We were loathed, no one wanted to hear us out or even understand what we were going through considering that we were the very first few people who contracted the disease in April.”
“When my mother’s patient died, it dawned on us that we would die because then there were only deaths and new cases in Zimbabwe. We had not yet recorded any recoveries.”
She says the shock deterred them from telling their closest relatives who eventually found out when their names and contact details were publicised.
Case 21 says neighbours and community members immediately developed ‘Covid-19 eyes’ which they used whenever they looked at any of the family members.
“Within a few days one of our tenants moved out saying he was ordered to do so by his employer. As if that was not enough, people stopped buying from our vending stall. We ended up eating everything ourselves as we were suddenly ‘barred’ from leaving the house, even to buy food. We were being labelled deliberate spreaders roaming around Bulawayo,” she says.
“My mother kept chickens to complement her income and she was forced to give them away as well because we were convinced death was near.”
According to Case 21, they concluded that they were dying soon as Covid was killing people at a very fast rate the world over.
“We started destroying our clothes and pots as we heard that after our death these would easily spread the disease. We did not see life after Covid-19 and we spent the most horrific 40 days in isolation.”
She says the family is still trying to replace all that was destroyed after members of the public gave the family a ‘death sentence’.
On hearing the news, Case 21 says one of her relatives collapsed and the family kept receiving phone calls from all over with most insulting them for putting the lives of members of the public at risk.
“On May 24 we were all confirmed recovered and though that was supposed to bring relief, the situation worsened. My mother almost lost her sanity and despite our ordeal, we tried to move on,” says Case 21.
“Our neighbours still do not buy from us which means we cannot easily make a living like before. Recently we attended my mother’s friend’s funeral. Although we kept our distance, people including church members chose to stand as far away from us as possible, preferring to expose themselves to rain rather than come near us because to them we are still the spreaders.”
According to her, Covid-19 has left deep wounds in their lives which will outlive the virus.
“Despite the fact that we are fine now, I wonder if I will be able to stand in front of children when we open and teach them confidently. My 10-year-old daughter is still traumatised as she does not understand what was going on and I hope that one day we will get over this and lead normal lives again,” she says.
“I wish people would take time to read and at least have a know-how of how this disease spreads before saying hurtful things whose impact will live on in our broken hearts post Covid-19,” she says.