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SIHLE ZIKALALA: The dangers of stigmatising COVID-19 are deadly

OPINION

As our nation intensifies its battle against the spread of COVID-19, the country should not underestimate the potential stigma has over South Africa’s effort to overcome the pandemic. In many ways, stigma is an illness itself that, if ignored, can become a sweeping epidemic, spreading faster than the illness itself.

We know from the history of diseases such as TB and HIV that stigma undermines efforts to prevent the spread of the illness, and does more harm to sick people and society. When people fear prejudice and potential discrimination because of their illness, they are likely to resist screening and testing efforts and might be forced to suffer alone and in silence.

There is growing evidence that shows that with the emergence of new and feared infectious diseases like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), comes considerable stigmatisation. Recent media reports show individuals and families who have been victimised and harassed because they have the coronavirus. Unicef has provided guidance on what people and the media can do to eliminate stigma. Young people worldwide are using social media to share stories of people who are victimised, using the medium to fight ignorance and prejudice linked to the pandemic.

The fear of coronavirus is understandable, especially in our country, which has not experienced something like this since perhaps the Spanish influenza of 1918. The flu wiped out tens of millions of people. The fear also arises from the fact that this pandemic is indiscriminate. Apart from taking away our loved ones, the other long-term ramifications of the pandemic will be its severe impact on the economy and people's livelihoods.

South Africa’s policymakers and scientists must be applauded for taking difficult and decisive steps from the moment we learned about the first confirmed COVID-19 case in KwaZulu-Natal on 5 March 2020. Within a month, the lives of South Africans have been turned upside down in an effort to save as many lives as possible from this threat. Our leaders did well not to waste time pointing fingers and all South Africans were mobilised. Government’s message has remained simple and consistent: group action and individual responsibility will end the spread.

Government has stressed the importance of changing behaviour, including physical distancing, self-quarantining, and washing hands regularly with soap while scientists race on to find a vaccine.

We still have not defeated the fear and stigma associated with Aids. Almost 40 years ago, when Aids was discovered in 1981, it was linked to homosexuals, and for a long time, same-sex couples were stigmatised before South Africa became an epicentre of this global pandemic. During the 14th century, during the bubonic plague - or “Black Death” plague - Jews were persecuted and killed because they were blamed for it. Today, we also know the Spanish flu as such because there was less press censorship in Spain during the Great War or the First World War. While war efforts suppressed the reporting of the flu in other countries, Spain - which was not involved in the war - reported the first symptom of what then came to be referred as the Spanish flu. There is ample documented evidence showing that people of Asian descent, especially the Chinese, have been subjected to victimisation and stigmatisation with the SARS pandemic, and now COVID-19, all over the world.

Myths are circulating in some communities that some people will not contract the virus because they have a different diet from Chinese people. Long before South Africa’s first confirmed case, worrying propaganda videos and images of Chinese people as repugnant “savages” who live on wild animals and even human flesh were circulating on social media. This has the potential to increase tension between all people of Asian descent and South Africans.

The US President’s [repeated characterisation of the virus](http://“Chinese virus”) may have only helped to reinforce stereotypes and unfounded fears about China. This is not a Chinese or Wuhan virus. It is a fact that it was China that first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the presence of COVID-19 at the end of 2019. But today, Europe has become the epicentre of the virus and the US is faced with a crisis many believe is unprecedented in its history.

As government advanced the message of hygiene and washing hands with the emergence of COVID-19, it did not take long for the privileged affluent sections of South African society to think of gardeners, domestic helpers, and refuse removers as the people who needed lessons in hygiene more than them. In fact, it is plausible to argue that in its first stages, it was the relatively economically well-off who, after travelling, spread the virus to those who labour for them in their homes and businesses or attend their churches. Local transmissions were only announced on 15 March, when there were 51 cases. The first cases were all people who travelled outside of the country.

We have heard concerns from business owners who either have or have recovered from the virus that they were worried that their businesses would be destroyed should their customers hear they had the virus. We have learned of someone taking her neighbours in an estate to court when she was harassed after informing them that she was in self-isolation because of the virus. The more people fear letting others know that they are infected and in isolation, the greater the risk others will not be upfront, risking many more people. Our own doctors, nurses, and community healthcare workers also face the danger of being stigmatised and isolated by their neighbours as they are on the frontline of fighting the disease.

Accurate knowledge and verified information is crucial so that people do not end up imbibing fake news and all sorts of myths. South Africa has no reason to doubt information presented by the WHO, the Presidency, the Department of Health, and our scientists. This is not a time for conspiracy theories and the spread of unscientifically proven ideas about the dangers of 5G technologies.

Our country has now entered a stage of accelerating screening and testing. Early detection of the virus and early quarantining will be key in flattening the curve and saving lives. Cuba and China will be sending their healthcare workers to work with our professionals to combat the disease.

We will triumph when we have empowered ourselves with knowledge, and through our ability to manage human fear. South Africans should avail themselves where government will be conducting the COVID-19 tests. And people must remember that many who have contracted the virus will not die as long as they get help and support. Let us discourage those who seek to discredit people who are infected or those who have overcome the virus.

This is not a time to be suspicious of one another. It is a time for strengthening social solidarity, care, and compassion. We share a collective responsibility in mitigating fear, victimisation, and discrimination.

It is in the hands of all South Africans to lessen the fear and stigmatisation and help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sihle Zikalala is the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal. Follow him on Twitter.

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