Lilian Ohene’s thoughts …Stop the stigma, save yourself

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Interacting with people who have had varying experiences with COVID-19, the issue of stigma tends to be present in virtually all dimensions. Right from contact tracing through sample taking at one’s home/environment to testing positive and being moved from home to a treatment center.

The novel corona virus is a pandemic that has so badly struck the world, tearing it out of its wealth and human capital. State heads have accepted greater roles in calling for preventive measures, monitoring and caring for people who have tested COVID-19 positive.

I may not be far from right to say that Ghana had wished and prayed before 13 March 2020 that the virus would never reach our beloved country and that some had made comments such as ‘This would pass us by just as Ebola did.

‘We had to witness the pandemic this time around with everything that comes with it. More than a thousand people tested positive, so far 10 have lost their lives and 134 have recovered. Samples of more than 60,000 people were collected through contact tracing. Stigma has been felt or perceived in one way or the other between these communities. Awareness of the possible way in which the virus is transmitted from one person to the other seems to be mismanaged and strengthening stigma.

Patient families are being stigmatized; people whose homes have been visited for contact tracing and testing may not know otherwise, relatives and acquaintances of people who have tested positive face rejections and mockery. The worst part is that after all the stress (physical and emotional) of testing positive and having to stay in a treatment facility for more than two weeks, they recover and go home to face the stigma of relatives, friends and neighbors.

Work colleagues who became aware that a staff tested positive of COVID-19 as a result of contact tracing are not acting any different. Some health workers are being stigmatized by their own spouses, family and neighbors. From a personal experience, after asking for my destination and realizing I was going to the hospital, a taxi driver asked, ‘are you a health worker?’ Answering “Yes,” he said, “If I knew that you were a health worker, I wouldn’t pick you up.

He went on to say “Now it is risky to get closer to health care staff.” I wonder, is there any negative impact this stigma may have? Yes most possibly on both the survivor and the wider group. Such people will have difficulties in returning to their homes, some may have begun looking for new accommodation through agents before being discharged, and this would mean that they incur expenses that they did not budge for. If not treated as soon as possible, the psychological impact of the stigma could be detrimental. Individuals have their own way of coping with it, whether it’s safe or unhealthy, insofar as it saves them from the immediate stressor, they sign up. If stigma remains in the air waiting to keep its grips on people, they would most likely succumb to refusing to disclose their symptoms if they encounter any.

People who test positive and would have to go to the treatment center are likely to lie to their relatives and neighbors about where they are going. In that case they can restrict the contact list they provide to the contact tracing team. The result may be that more asymptomatic carriers will be able to walk around openly and spread the virus only because one person who feared being stigmatized wanted to keep it somewhat. This means that if we don’t avoid stigmatizing people who have tested positive and their families, we put ourselves at a greater risk of getting infested with Corona virus because somebody wanted to stay silent about his / her test result in order to shield him / her from stigmatization.

Psychologists in Ghana, through the Ghana Psychological Association, Korle-bu Teaching Hospital and Ghana Health Service, are playing a major role in saving the psychological pandemic arising from the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic. As part of their job, patients received in-depth education on corona virus, especially on the issue of asymptomatic carriers, because most of these groups initially doubted their test results because they had no symptoms.

Patients are being given psychological therapies to help relieve their stress and anxieties. The perceived and real stigma problems are also being discussed to prepare patients if they are stigmatized to be able to handle it well. However, psychologists’ arms might not completely touch those who, for fear of stigma, wanted to conceal their symptoms.

Therefore, it has become important to draw the attention of the general public to the impact of stigma and emphasize that if you stigmatize your neighbor, you are most likely the next victim. Let’s end the stigma, and save our own and our loved ones’ lives.

The writer is a Clinical Psychologist and a member, Ghana Psychological Association.

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