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Fear and stigma slows down Covid-19 prevention

  • Published at 10:47 pm May 2nd, 2020
People wear mask as a preventive measure to tackle the coronavirus pandemic Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

This happens every time a highly infectious untreatable virus starts to spread but a recent study found that eliminating that very stigma is the best way to prevent the spread of Sars-Cov2 in Bangladesh

Back in the mid-eighties, when human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) first began to spread, the fear and stigma from the then unknown virus led many to leave people out to die, sometimes with doctors refusing to treat HIV patients. 

This happens every time a highly infectious untreatable virus starts to spread but a recent study found that eliminating that very stigma is the best way to prevent the spread of Sars-Cov2 in Bangladesh.  

During a webinar, "Rapid Assessment of Fear & Stigma Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic in Bangladesh," on Saturday, the research of Dr Shahaduz Zaman, a reader in Medical Anthropology and Global Health at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), and Dr Sumon Rahman, professor of Department of Media Studies at University of Liberal Arts (ULAB), found this stigma is also preventing people from seeking help when they begin to show symptoms. 

The research was conducted by in depth telephone Interviews, mass media content analysis, analyzing social media posts, and shadow observation.  They found that fear and stigma moved through six phases, from when it was an unknown entity only affecting one country, to almost nine thousand infections in Bangladesh today. 

In the first phase from January to February, when Sars-Cov2 was still something happening in China, people had a false sense of security. They were also persuaded by religious leaders with moral equivalencies or by fake news. 

 “A few religious preachers said the virus only attacks immoral westerners and Muslims will not be affected by it while another group began to spread a false sense of security with articles talking about how heat and humidity weakens the spread of the virus,” said Dr Shahaduz Zaman during his presentation. 

When the first case was detected in Bangladesh, the second phase started from the second week of March till the middle of that month, when returning migrants were starting to be stigmatized as the carriers and spreaders of Sars-Cov2. 

Although migrants are generally respected in their community, “the returnees were physically stamped with the quarantine dates by the airport authorities and a red flag was hoisted at their houses. As a result, the returnees were formally singled out and stigmatized as a group,” he said.

On March 18 when the first person died of Covid-19, the third phase began in Bangladesh with the reality of the dangers of this virus setting in. 

By the fourth phase in the last week of March, a massive epidemic of misinformation or infodemic began to spread as the global pandemic reared its ugly head locally. 

Media personality Dr Abdun Noor Tushar at the webinar said: “People have now started to understand that some religious preachers have spread misinformation in the name of religion.”

By the fifth phase that lasted till the second week of April, people began to feel the economic repercussions of the shutdown, coupled with the fear of infection itself. 

Their research found that in the last and sixth phase which started on April 2, the very fabric of social order was being destroyed. People began to leave their sick parents  out to die in deserted places like forests. They also began to run away from quarantine, and being evicted from their homes by fearful landlords or neighbours, and so on. 

Dr Shahaduz Zaman recommends an awareness campaign to effectively equip people with the right information and empathy. He also said the lockdown needs to be lifted in phases so that people can work for a living again.  

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