Covid-19: controlling the xenophobic momentum

Most worrisome is that the Covid-19 stigma will undermine the process of testing and treating the disease


Raja Khalid Shabbir May 16, 2020
The writer is a doctor based in Islamabad. He tweets @drkhalidshab

As an emergency room doctor, I have witnessed on many occasions an aspect of the coronavirus pandemic which I feared for long: panic and the resultant stigma.

The moment a patient coughs in the ER, the people closest take retreating steps and the patient turns into a social outcast. This goes to the extent that he finds it impossible to get a cab back home.

That cough can be the result of a million things. Maybe he ate a peanut, the specks of which got stuck in his throat forcing a cough. The coronavirus stigma is out there, is a reality and we need to fight it.

The fear of protracting a contagious disease, panic of not being able to meet loved-ones and uncertainty about the disease outcome creates a social stigma towards infected people and the place where the disease originated.

So far, over 300,000 lives have been lost to the virus globally. Over 4.5 million people have been infected, out of which more than 1.7 million have recovered. While those recovered are blessed with a second life, they will carry the coronavirus stigma with them for the rest of their lives.

The panic surrounding the virus infection is genuine. A Covid-19 diagnosis is being considered a death sentence as no medicine or vaccine is available to treat the virus. Those recovering are still in a whirlpool of uncertainty as even the WHO is unsure about the development of immunity in recovered individuals.

Covid-19 attacks the lungs and causes difficulty in breathing. Its severity is such that a six-inch piece of stainless steel (laryngoscope) has to be passed down the patient’s throat into the trachea, followed by the insertion of a long plastic breathing tube in the windpipe and attached to a ventilator machine externally to keep the patient breathing. Considering the number of Covid-19 patients, the world faces an acute shortage of ventilators, weakening the ability to fight the virus.

A simple cough, sneeze or a handshake can spread this deadly contagion. The virus has joined the list of stigmatised medical disorders such as psychiatric illnesses (schizophrenia, etc.) and sexually transmitted diseases (AIDS, etc.).

Since its outbreak in December 2019, people have been associating Covid-19 to China, and Chinese living in any part of the world have been targeted with social avoidance and scepticism. A few months back, when the situation did not warrant a lockdown, I witnessed the “coronavirus” slur being thrown at a Chinese couple by some boys in public.

The US President went one step ahead to feed the stigma and labelled the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus”. The Chinese government responded by blaming American soldiers for introducing the virus in Wuhan. Our response to a virus which has no respect for life, geography, gender or age should not be divided if we are to overcome this crisis.

People caring for Covid-19 patients such as family members and healthcare workers, people with a recent travel history, recovered corona patients and Asians everywhere are also at the receiving end of the coronavirus stigma.

These stigmatised groups are being subjected to social avoidance or rejection, denial to services such as healthcare, employment, housing and even verbal or physical abuse. This evolving xenophobic momentum needs to stop.

Most worrisome is that the Covid-19 stigma will undermine the process of testing and treating the disease. Fearing social abandonment, sick people would avoid getting tested for the virus, thus pushing all global efforts up against the wall.

We are losing the war against the microscopic world. We cannot allow this virus to serve as a catalyst for the spread of hatred. The least we can do is unite ourselves during this time of international crisis, or soon there would be no one left to hate.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2020.

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