Coronavirus: The Scourge of Stigmatization in Nigeria 

By Gift Olivia Samuel.

Coronavirus Disease, also known as COVID-19, is currently ravaging the world, cutting across countries and continents. Presently, the pandemic has claimed more than 300,000 lives with over 4.59 million cases confirmed in 188 countries and regions, according to John Hopkins University.

The outbreak of the virus which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2), was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30th January, and a pandemic  on March 11, 2020.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic“, said the World Health Organisation Director-General,Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 on March 11,  2020.

Presently, the United States of America has recorded the highest number of cases  with 1.45 million confirmed cases and over 87,000 deaths, and Nigeria which recorded her first case on the 27th of February 2020, now has over 5,000 confirmed cases and over 170 deaths.

Economies world over are struggling with the Pandemic and Nigeria, a country with a population of over 200 million people and over 102 million people living in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock, is not left out. Nigeria, however, is not only battling poverty, it is also battling several issues, one of which is stigmatization against COVID-19 patients as well as those who only had symptoms but were found to be negative when tested.

A victim of such stigmatization is Mr. Lucky Orhuerakpo, an indigene of Delta state residing in Koko Warri North Local Government Area. He was tested on April 29, 2020 by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), after displaying symptoms similar to COVID-19 symptoms.

“I had a sore throat, chest pains and difficulty in breathing with mild sneezing sometimes. My daughter also felt sore throat and chest pains”, he narrated. “I was very happy when the test results for me and my daughter came back Negative”.

Lucky Orhuerakpo/  Photo Credit: Facebook

Although Lucky and his daughter tested negative to the virus and were never taken to any isolation center, he was still being stigmatized by his neighbours who stayed away from him and his family.

According to him, “I have been stigmatized in different ways.  Most of my neighbors stayed away from me and my family. Most people that knew me started avoiding me except just two neighbors in the whole community”. “Whenever I go out, some people even call me Coronavirus. It was not easy being a victim of stigmatization”.

Traumatized by people pointing fingers at him and murmuring about him whenever he walked in the streets, Lucky had to make his test result public on his Facebook account, so people could see that he was negative, as he could no longer bear the trauma.

Speaking on the ills of stigmatization, the National Coordinator, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwubiko said that stigmatization is a crime which by now should have been outlawed by a valid legislation. He also noted that, Section 42 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution outlaws discriminatory practices, adding that the issue of stigmatization of COVID-19 patients is a constitutional matter. 

The Constitution according to him, also provides that each citizen must be treated with dignity and honour, as he urged the Federal and state legislatures to come up with clear legal frameworks that stipulate penalties for anyone who stigmatizes any citizen on the ground of ill health or disability. 

Onwubiko, noted that the courage displayed by some notable Nigerians in identifying their COVID-19 status is worth commending, adding that the more people come out openly to declare their status, the better and by that way, stigmatization will fizzle out. 

Furthermore, he stated that, “Just like HIV/AIDS that used to be an anathema for the patients, soon Coronavirus will no longer be looked upon with stigma, even as HIV specifically is no longer deeply stigmatized”.  “The Coronavirus pandemic is not a respecter of person or status in the social settings. So, it does not make sense for the victims to be stigmatized. If stigmatization becomes notorious then we have to apply the full weight of the law to punish offenders”.

To curb stigmatization, he said there is need for more sensitization on the part of all governmental systems in Nigeria and even by Civil Society Organisations. “NCDC should double up their sensitization and awareness creation measures to educate Nigerians that COVID-19 is not a death penalty,  COVID-19 is not a curse, but a disease that anyone can catch”, he quipped.

Lucky on his part, wants the Federal Government and the NCDC to take COVID-19 awareness to the rural communities and villages, adding that  most people in the cities are aware of the disease but people living in rural communities think it is a fairytale. 

“The FG and NCDC need to meet Local Government Chairmen, Councillors, Community leaders and village chiefs to pass the message of COVID-19 to their subjects”, he said. “Let them use town criers to announce that COVID-19 is real and the best way to stay alive is to follow FG, NCDC and WHO guidelines by; Washing their hands regularly with running water and soap; Avoid touching of nose, mouth and eyes; Practice social distancing; wearing of face mask; and covering of mouth with tissue or the inside of your elbow whenever you sneeze or cough”. 

He called on Nigerians who stigmatize others to stop, as stigmatization can cause trauma, depression, and even suicide.  “This period of COVID-19, we should be our brother’s keeper and show love to one another. Being a COVID-19 patient is not a death sentence. We should preach and practice love”, he said.

Stigmatization of COVID-19 patients is very dangerous as it could lead to more deaths and those with symptoms may die in silence for fear of the consequences of being identified and segregated by the members of the society. Stigmatization could even affect contact tracing, testing and treatment as many persons that have symptoms might not come forward due to societal stigmatization.

It is only when stigmatization against COVID-19 patients is totally stopped, that more people can come forward and present themselves for testing, people can willingly give information to aid contact tracing which could culminate in flattening the curve quicker.

COVID-19 is not a death sentence, although people die from it, more people have also recovered globally. Nigerians and people world over must work hard to ensure that stigmatization is stopped.

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