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COVID-19: Beyond hand washing

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THE smiles are now beginning to fade from our faces as we are daily confronted with the reality of the Covid 19 pandemic here in Nigeria. Fear is also creeping in as it dawns on us that we are not prepared.

  A few weeks ago, we made light of the matter and joked about the disease. “It’s the disease of the Egyptians” ,“It is not for the black man”, “Our God won’t allow it” ,“Our climate will destroy it”; and On and on we enthused, as  we went about our business without care. But few weeks down the line, churches are shut, mosques are shut, markets are shut and now, our loud mouths are finally shut as we watch the virus spread among us in great trepidation.

  We all know our poor medical system could be under testing suspected cases and under reporting the high rate of infections among Nigerians. There could be thousands of  fellow country men and women who might have this disease but may only be identified at death, after a generous redistribution of the virus.

We know we are playing with naked fire beside a tanker laden with PMS (fuel).Unfortunately, when it explodes, we the masses will be left all on our own, as expected of a country whose president and ministers have standby private wards in various hospitals across Europe. Only that this time, we are all stuck here.

  So we must devise ways of staying alive and containing this disease whose origin and purpose remains controversial. Therefore, beyond the overflogged mantra of “wash your hands”, “sanitize your hands “ and “stay at home” and “keep your distance”, there is one most vital preventive strategy we have ignored, the only strategy which if not encouraged will make a complete mess of all the effort  we are making. That one singular most powerful step is to say ‘No ToStigimisation’.

  The fastest way to turn this disease into an atomic bomb in Nigeria is for us to stigmatise those who are already infected. Nigerians know how to take every negativity to the next level. Stigmatisation if not checked, will not only be targeted at the individual but also at his entire family and community.

And the moment this disease is made to carry a stigma, then, we are all finished. Infected victims will of course go underground to save face; families will strive to protect their image by refusing to expose infected members, while some carriers will declare war on society and proceed to deliberately infect others, driving us into a “guerrilla war” where the unseen fighter is himself the weapon.

  This was the situation at some point in our lives when the HIV pandemic swept through the world, stigmatization led many infected persons to suicide while some others chose to ingloriously take it out on the society by systematically infecting unsuspecting partners.

People only began to willingly show up for HIV tests when they were certain a treatment routine has been discovered and that they have a chance to live, gradually, the stigma died down and infection rate rolled back.

Therefore, no amount of hand washing or social distancing will save us if we make infected persons feel unwanted, rejected and depressed.

  Fear is an important agent of stigmatisation. Therefore to check against stigmatisation we must consciously and strategically deescalate fear in the populace; we must begin to let people know that more people have recovered from this disease than those we lost. Inundating us with news of death, death and death and very little of recoveries is fuelling stigma.

We should actually celebrate each person who recovers. This way, more people will be willing to quickly come up for tests. Rather than “threaten” infected persons with death from the virus if they fail to open up, lets persuade them with tales of hope from the stables of those who got healed.

  If a sick person knows his disease is curable he will certainly not feel stigmatised. As at 11th of April, 2020, the UK based Guardian Newspaper reported that over 377,336 infected persons have recovered all over the world as against 113,030 deaths since the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China and with about 1,827,284 cases all over the world.

Here in Nigeria, as of April 12, 2020, a total of  5000 samples have been tested with 323 confirmed cases out of which 10 deaths have been recorded while 85 persons have been discharged (source: National Center For Disease Control, NCDC). Therefore this virus is not invincible.

  The Term “Isolation Center” used to describe the facility where infected persons are managed has in way set the tone for stigmatisation. At a time like this the unfortunate ones among us require care, fraternal love and family bond and not to be “driven away” from family through “isolation”. They need to know we love them.

They need to know we will keep them close to our hearts notto “Isolate” them. Of course it is proper that the disease is controlled by containing further transmission but rubbing discrimination into their faces can be quiet depressing and encourage stigma. Therefore, the term “Isolation” is not good for the psych of our brothers and sisters who are managing the Coronavirus Infection. Can we just refer to the treatment center as ‘Care’ rather than isolation center, even if it is located 500 miles in the desert.

  The Anambra State Government under Chief Willie Obiano seems to have a perfect grasp of the negative impact of the name“Isolation Centre”, so to assure ndiAnambra that we are in this together and that no one is left behind or discriminated or stigmatised on account of this pandemic,Isolation centers across the state are brilliantly referred to as protective care centres.I recommend the federal, states, and media adopt the name “Protective Care Centers” in place of  “Isolation Centers”. There is something in a name.

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