Coronavirus – Nigeria: Social stigma threatens COVID-19 response but patients heal faster with everyone’s support

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Fatima Mustapha a 25-year-old student from Kano state who recently recovered from COVID-19 in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) is facing serious challenges of stigma amongst her friends and even family. The emotional turmoil of this experience has made her become withdrawn, keeping to herself in her family house. She had looked forward to uniting with her friends and family members after her 14-day stay in the isolation center but alas, that was not to be.

“Last week, my aunt came to visit and she specifically told my mum to make sure I stay in my room until she leaves as she doesn’t want to contract the virus. Even though my mum tried explaining to her that I was no longer infectious, all her pleas fell on deaf ears,” she added.

Anecdotal evidence indicate that stigma associated with the COVID-19 can make people hide when they are sick and can also make people delay in seeking treatment. Individuals can contribute to the reduction of stigma associated with COVID-19, especially those who work at the frontlines and also share information. 

In his observation dealing with COVID-19 survivors, Dr David Igbokwe, a Stress Counsellor with WHO from the Faculty of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the Baze University Abuja, shared some advice.  “Firstly, the choice of words matter and all are encouraged to use inclusive language and less stigmatizing terminologies. Phrases such as ‘people who have covid19’ or ‘people who are being treated for COVID-19’ instead of ‘victims’. Secondly, share information based on latest scientific data and avoid sharing rumors. Thirdly, talk positively and include encouraging words such as ‘overcome’, ‘prevail’ etc. and avoid use of negative words or messages.”

There are many people like Fatima who, after successfully winning the fight against COVID 19, face stigma in their communities and work places.

Just like her, Mr Innocent Omoaka of Benin City, Edo state mentioned that most people do not go to testing centers for fear of stigmatization. They are afraid to go there and someone sees them and automatically labels them as COVID-19 patients and people get to distance themselves from them.

“A few weeks ago, some sample collection centers were commissioned and I decided to go get tested even though I did not have any symptoms. To my surprise, the information circulated within minutes in my community and people were scared to come close to me. I was clearly discriminated against because most of them believed I had the virus and was not being open about it; some even wished me quick recovery. No amount of explanation could make them believe I was not positive.”

Mr Samuel Tarfa, WHO Nigeria Mental Health officer stated that “Stigma affects emotional or mental health of stigmatized persons or groups and the communities they live in. Stopping stigma is immensely important to making communities and community members resilient”.

“Stigma robs individuals of opportunities that define quality life ranging from satisfactory health care to affiliation with a diverse group of people. It also hurts those who are trying to battle their challenge, it hurts those who lost loved ones due to the condition or are trying to support their loved ones as they cope with the condition” he added.

Raising public awareness on stories of people who have recovered from COVID19 is a good approach to curb stigma associated with the disease. In view of this, the World Health Organization (WHO) Nigeria is supporting government by championing the “hero campaign”, which aims to disseminate stories of people who tested positive and recovered from COVID19. More so, WHO continues supporting risk communication activities in form of motorized van campaigns, radio programmes s and community engagement across the country.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of World Health Organization (WHO) – Nigeria.

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