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Trauma of living with Covid-19 stigma

The Covid-19 recovery rate in South Africa is one of the highest in the world and stands at 60 percent, yet many who have recovered and beat the virus are still battling to shake off not only the trauma but the stigma associated with it.

Last month, a Mpumalanga teacher reportedly set herself alight after people started gossiping about her when she went into self isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

In the Western Cape’s Langa township, Nosisi Jacobs told the Sunday Independent about her harrowing experience at the hands of her neighbours after they heard she had been infected with Covid-19.

“When I tested positive two months ago, it was difficult. I felt rejected and judged by the very community I’ve lived in for years, and in some instances, it was said I was responsible for bringing the Coronavirus into the community. My life was even threatened, insults were hurled at us. Having to juggle both traumas was overwhelming,” she said.

“My results came through my neighbour’s phone because I didn’t own one at the time, and in a matter of hours after receiving the news, the entire community was talking about it, and some came around my house taking videos and pictures of us. There was even talk of burning us because we were the Corona family,” she added.

The mother of three, whose ages range between 4 and 8 years, had to be removed to a government facility for isolation. She also had to ask for her children to be moved too because she feared for their safety.

“The community placed a yellow tape around my house, advising people not to come near us and that we also couldn’t go beyond it. All the while, rumours continued to spread that I had passed on. Hence, the ambulance was at my house.”

When her isolation period ended, Jacobs had to brave the threats and return to her community. She now sees many people who are scared to open up after testing positive for Covid-19 because they fear getting the same treatment meted out to her and her children.

In Joburg, people’s reaction to 39-year old *Zimele Ngcobo were not as blunt as they were to Jacobs, but a few blamed him and accused him of bringing the virus closer to them.

Ngcobo opted to withhold his identity to protect his children, who are still dealing with the trauma.

“I honestly didn’t know I was infected, especially because I suffer from chronic sinusitis. It was only after my wife tested positive that I had to test, and the results truly shocked me.

“A week into self-isolation, a colleague called me drunk and blamed me for her catching the flu, apparently echoing what everyone else was saying in the office. And that hurt,” he said, adding that the fact that he almost lost his wife and the lonely weeks that followed when no one checked up on him, was traumatic.

“It is only now that some of my friends are telling me how they thought we wouldn’t pull through, and how their fears of contacting the virus influenced their decisions not to call us. And these are educated, modern people that live in the city”.

The stigmatisation of sick people is not something new and was experienced even with HIV/Aids, where people were confronted by a novel illness, threatening their livelihood and very existence said Clinical Psychologist Matsedeso Nthako.

“And when these emotions are heightened and aren’t managed in a healthy manner, they can create a mentality of “us versus them” within society. Subsequently, the infected person is set apart from others, and is seen as belonging to a stereotyped group,” she said.

Nthako described stigma as a barrier entrenched within societal narratives and defines a pattern of negative attitudes and misconceptions towards a person who is labelled by their circumstance, characteristics or illness.

“Stigma can emerge from the public’s response towards an unfamiliar condition, which is often accompanied by a widespread cycle of heavy, negative news and myths on various platforms.

“This instils fear in people who then want to disassociate themselves, from whomever is attached to that condition in an attempt to gain some sense of control over the situation,” she added.

And the Covid-19 pandemic will likely leave many South Africans traumatised, according to Dr Marshinee Naidoo, a psychiatrist who practises at Akeso Alberton mental health facility.

“Most people experience some degree of distress after a traumatic event, or a period of trauma, in their lives, as they try to come to terms with it. But after a period of a few weeks, or months, they tend to recover from the shock and do not develop lasting mental health difficulties as a result of it,” she said.

“However, a sizeable number of people – between 18 and 25 percent – experience severe ongoing symptoms in the months or even years following such an event or period of trauma. When symptoms last longer than four weeks, it may indicate a deeper level of psychological distress known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD severely disrupts mental health and can substantially restrict the person’s ability to function,” Dr Naidoo explained.

Sunday Independent

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